Cutting Federal Funding for the Arts and Humanities will Hurt Everyone... aka What Stories Will Neve
Okay… we’ve all heard the news… the White House officially announced plans to abolish federal funding for the arts and humanities. The draft budget calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). They have also called for privatization of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting and elimination of 49 National Historic Sites. We don’t need to mince words. This is an all-out assault on our country’s cultural infrastructure.
As the communications director of PhilaLandmarks, our board chair, Charles Keates, reached out to me and our executive director, Jonathan Burton, requesting that we make a statement on behalf of our organization. I actually asked if, instead of using our “we” voice, I could write from my own perspective.
For the past 15 years, I have worked as a tireless advocate for arts and culture in Philadelphia, helping to raise funds and awareness for several of our city’s leading cultural institutions (and a number of smaller ones) as both a professional and volunteer. I have written countless fundraising letters and I abhor that “now more than ever” mentality. In many ways, the cultural institutions of Philadelphia constitute a small community. While we compete for funding, we also support each other in endless ways. We are often co-dependent. This is especially true in the tourism and historic realms.
For those of you unfamiliar, our greatest assets are the vast underground networks we build in our cultural community. Through the people I met while working as a development director, I have a vast network of scholarly and artistic connections throughout the city and nation. This network is crucial to an organization like PhilaLandmarks. Because we have such a small staff, we depend on partnering to produce original programming, to research, or even just to access primary sources. Our history…the stories that WE tell in our houses… “live” in countless archives and museums, locally and nationally. A quick email this past week to a colleague at the American Philosophical Society and we were sent a digital image for use on our upcoming Annual Meeting invitation. A visit to another knowledgeable colleague at the archives of Independence National Historic Park (INHP) uncovered research that would have otherwise taken hours to hunt down. I can provide hundreds of similar examples that allow us to “do our work” here at PhilaLandmarks. And I should say these services are always gratis. Fees are waived in-kind.
We are only as strong as the relationships we build with one another. We constantly barter our resources. We build partnerships to develop new programming. I introduced my theater friends to PhilaLandmarks, both as an inspirational resource and as a potential venue. I am happy to say our theatrical programming is stellar and continues to grow... with sell-out attendance. Audiences speak about our houses "coming alive"... the melding of art and history is magical.
We recently mounted an exhibit in the Community History Gallery at the Philadelphia History Museum. We relied on several local resources to tell “our” story…the story of the founding of PhilaLandmarks. If the INHP archives had been closed, we would have been without key information. We wouldn’t have the full story. But the question now arises, how long will we have access?
The administration’s hiring freeze at National Historic Parks has started to cause a ripple in our closely-knit historic community. INHP administrators have already shuttered seven local attractions including the Declaration House and Franklin’s Print Shop on Market Street, the Kosciuszko House on Pine, and the all-important bathrooms at Fifth and Chestnut, for lack of staffing. So, yes on the tourism side there will be an immediate damper as word travels that buildings are closed and those that remain open have limited hours and longer lines. (Not to mention the potential decrease in foreign travelers.) This won’t “magically” push tourists over to Powel and Hill-Physick down the block. There will just be less visitors. Less tourists mean there will be less paid tour guides and reenactors. Why does this matter to us? We have a number of tour guides who are able to volunteer for PhilaLandmarks precisely because they get paid by their other regular gigs. The popular Once Upon a Nation storytelling bench we enjoyed at Powel House this past summer could be at risk as well.
The ironic timing of the announcement of these proposed budget cuts is that I am currently in the process of writing our F/Y 2016 annual report. We had a great fiscal year! And as I review photos and write content about our many successful events, I can’t help but to start thinking… which of these programs will disappear in the next two years?
You might assume that because we don’t currently receive federal funding that PhilaLandmarks will escape the worst of the pain from these proposed budget cuts. But the closely-knit ties we enjoy means that cuts anywhere will affect us all. Most of Philadelphia’s cultural institutions are already running on skeleton crews. No one has fat to cut. There will be less partnering, less exhibits, more competition for less overall funding.
We are already calculating the upcoming “chill” on other available funding resources. The first evidence of this is donor fatigue. People are sending more funds than ever to “at-risk” organizations. Just look at the response to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and this past week… Meals On Wheels. We are not just competing within our industry, but with an endless number of institutions. We’ve been trying to determine when or even if we should be sending out our PhilaLandmarks fundraising appeal letter in the middle of all this chaos. To do so requires a great number of precious resources and to do so without a strong return is really just spending money.
We currently receive general operating funds from the state, in 2016 we received $18,000. Your guess is as good as ours as to whether those funds will be likewise allocated in the coming year. We are not eligible for general operating funding from the city, but we are allowed to apply for project grants. Last year we were awarded $9800 in funding for our popular Grumblethorpe Youth Volunteers Farm Stand. This year already, as we learned this week, that funding took a $5000 hit… funds that need to be found elsewhere…and quickly.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another area of concern for us. Under the Affordable Care Act, PhilaLandmarks was able to rework its health benefits for its three full-time employees with a significant cost savings. Medicaid expansion and the ability to cover each employee as an individual rather than a "one-size-fits-all" package was key. If ACA is abolished, those savings go away and a new benefits package will need to be instituted. That is another potentially LARGE budget item not currently accounted for. Additionally, while PhilaLandmarks is not responsible for the health benefits of site managers or part-time workers such as myself, the dissolution of ACA will likely send many of our part-time workers out looking for full-time jobs with health benefits. Over the course of the past several years the ACA has allowed many of us public historian “part-timers” the freedom to take on multiple projects from several organizations. This has added to the cross-pollination of Philadelphia’s cultural community. An example of this is the exhibit I curated for PhilaLandmarks at the Philadelphia History Museum, which was partly influenced by the original research I did for a tour I was paid to write for the Preservation Alliance, which in turn had been based on another unfunded project I had previously researched. It saved PhilaLandmarks thousands of dollars of research time. (Really, it’s research that would have never been done.) Such synergies drive the work we do in the Philadelphia history community.
Time will tell what the total impact our current administration will have on an organization such as PhilaLandmarks. Like everyone else, our long-time supporters and our new friends will become ever more important to our survival. But cutting back on popular programs will not win us friends. Losing staff will not make us stronger. So what CAN we do?
We can do *this*… we can get the word out about the impact of the current proposed federal budget cuts. Hopefully, you have a better sense of what these “trickle down” effects might be for PhilaLandmarks and the historical community at large. The next step is to share what you know. Talk to your friends.
Pick up the phone and call your local, state, and federal representatives. Ask them where they stand on the issue of cultural and historical funding. If you are like me, you’ve already had a bit of practice with this over the course of the last few months. But if not, we have a few recommended resources to help you out.
The Committee of Seventy has a great list of all your federal, state, and local political office holders, including their phone numbers. (Philadelphia List) We recommend calling directly. But emailing, faxing, and snail mail is important too.
And of course, if you believe in the mission of PhilaLandmarks, if you want to help us continue to inspire people to engage with history, we hope you will continue to engage with us. We hope to see you at one of our upcoming events.
I’m getting ready to follow a research lead down to the archives at the Smithsonian. I am scared that by the time I am free to visit, the papers will be inaccessible due to lack of staffing. Let’s hope that’s not the case. We still have many new—yet-to-be—discoveries to share!