Eliminating NEA could be detrimental to Arizona communities


Hotel Gadsen, located in the small border town of Douglas, Ariz., is a local and national treasure built in 1907. (Photograph by Mackenzie Boulter)






For small towns like Douglas, grants for the arts can be deeply influential.

With the election of a new mayor in 2016, Douglas is looking at a future that thrives on arts and culture, and is using National Endowment for the Arts funding to bring back life to this troubled border town in Arizona’s southeast corner.

Mayor Robert Uribe and his wife, Jenea Sanchez, have been working diligently to find a way to rebuild Douglas as a historic city that can be recognized as a cultural center and supporter of the arts.

“For our state arts organization to come into our local community and contribute funds towards our arts refinement, it very much legitimizes the work that we have started on, and we are so grateful for that,” Sanchez said.

The Trump administration plans to eliminate the NEA poses a threat to small towns in Arizona that depend upon NEA funding to bring art to their local communities.

While funding arts in the big communities such as Scottsdale, Phoenix and Tucson is crucial to the state’s arts, the organizations that benefit largely from these grants and recognition are the smaller communities.

“The importance of this kind of public funding is really about that statewide reach and reaching those smaller rural communities,” said Steve Wilcox, the communications director at the Arizona Commission on the Arts. “That statewide reach and reaching those smaller communities is sort of our role in this ecosystem.”

In Arizona, the NEA granted $797,900 for fiscal year 2016 to the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Arizona’s state art agency, through NEA’s State Partnership Grant Program. All awards granted to state art agencies through this program must be matched 1 to 1 from the state’s federal funds.

This program offers support and funding locally for art projects and education, which allows more communities to make art available than NEA’s direct grants could ever reach.

Historically, Arizona’s federal government has more than matched the amount of funding received from the NEA through a trust fund, established in 1989, that goes toward the arts. Each year, Arizona arts receive about $1.5 million from the fund, according to Wilcox.

“If the state decided that they no longer wanted to invest in the arts and eliminated the arts trust fund and other funding sources, the federal government could not issue our grant,” Wilcox said.

With the grants from the NEA and from federal funding, Arizona Commission on the Arts will support art projects and communities, both locally and statewide, to help with education and inspiration of the arts.

Federal funding can be an incentive for the state to invest. The question is, once that incentive is gone, is there the same desire on the state’s part to make any contribution to the arts?

“In the arts funding ecosystem, all of the legs support the stool,” Wilcox said. “If you pull out one, the whole funding ecosystem becomes less stable, so that is a very legitimate concern.”

The NEA plays a big role in the national art ecosystem through the funding it provides through direct grants or to states’ art agencies. It is also the only endowment program in the U.S. that supports art agencies in all 56 states and jurisdictions.

“If the NEA was eliminated, it would have a huge negative impact on not just the art community, but on communities in general,” said Kevin Vaughan-Brubaker, public art manager at Scottsdale Public Art.

In addition to support through funding, the NEA has also supported art organizations, big and small, by giving them recognition through grants.

“Receiving an NEA grant is kind of like a stamp of approval for other funders that then say, ‘oh yeah I want to support that too,’” Vaughan-Brubaker said.

A lot of times that NEA funding can be seen as the seed for an idea that then grows and attracts other funders.

Scottsdale Public Art received a direct grant from the NEA this year for its annual event, Canal Convergence: Water + Light + Art, held Feb. 23-26. During the interactive event, nine large-scale contemporary art installations were positioned in the Arizona canal and along its banks in Scottsdale, featuring a series of different artists from around the world.

“In Arizona it’s important for exposure of all the different cultures here like the Hispanic culture, the Native American culture and population culture,” Vaughan-Brubaker said.

Art is important to the cultural background and economical welfare of Arizona as it brings tourism and a sense of southwest urbanity to the state. However, Arizona’s smaller communities like Douglas depend on art and funding from the NEA and from the state art agencies for existence.

“If the NEA was defunded it would definitely affect us in a big way and could limit all of our hopes for the future of our city,” Sanchez said.

Douglas, Ariz., a once booming mining town, now has empty streets and deserted buildings. Mayor Urbine, his wife and the community are depending on NEA grants to rebuild their city as an art hub of the nation. (Photograph by Mackenzie Boulter)

Douglas once depended on the mining industry in nearby Bisbee, but when the mine dried up, so did Douglas. The town and its mayor are hoping to make a full recovery by turning the city into one that celebrates the arts and invites tourism, according to Wilcox.

Douglas is one of four communities served through the AZ ArtWorks program within the Arizona Commission on the Arts. This program, funded by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, delivers opportunities for peer-to-peer artist training and professional development.

Eliminating the NEA could threaten Douglas’ culture and hope of mending its community, Sanchez said.

“(The NEA) has helped open up doors faster than we ever could have imagined,” she said.

Mackenzie Boulter is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at mackenzieboulter@email.arizona.edu.

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