slice of life

Potential Trump NEA, CPB budget cuts could render CNY arts organizations down, but not out

Codie Yan | Staff Photographer

Light Work is just one of many Syracuse-based arts organizations that would be affected by Trump's proposed budget cuts. Some of the others include Syracuse Stage and WAER radio station.


Some say art is a universal language. Under President Donald Trump, it could be a dying one.

Independent movie theaters in 187 cities across the United States screened a movie adaption of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” Tuesday and the Palace Theatre in Syracuse was one of them. The screening protested Trump’s proposed federal budget plan, which, among other cuts, slates both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the chopping block.

While The Palace Theatre is a non-partisan establishment, Director of Event Booking Gia Palermo wanted the theater to join on the national conversation and teamed up with Uplift Syracuse and the Onondaga Democratic Committee to make it happen.

“I thought it was important for the Palace to be among the theaters across the country that are standing up — making a political statement that we’re in solidarity,” Palermo said. “And the things that are happening in the government are not OK.”

Endowments like the NEA and CPB have kept the central New York arts and news scene afloat since 1965. Staple Syracuse arts organizations, including CNY Jazz, the Everson Museum, the Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse Stage and Light Work all receive NEA funding. The CPB funds Syracuse University’s WAER and State University of New York-Oswego’s WRVO radio stations through annual community service grants and the New York State Council on the Arts.

As the future of the NEA and CPB hangs in purgatory, Trump’s proposal elicits mixed feelings from the central New York community.

“Luckily for us, we’ve been around long enough that we have some solid footing,” Shane Lavalette, director of Light Work, said. “But it would hurt us and especially hurt institutions that are newer.”

Light Work received $50,000 from the NEA in 2016 to support its artist-in-residence program and $63,000 for its Urban Video Project, Executive Director Jeffrey Hoone said in an email. Lavalette said he is trying to remain optimistic despite the proposal’s implications.

“The trickle effect of cutting the arts is a devastating idea. To me, it just makes no sense,” Lavalette said.

Mary Lee Hodgens, associate director at Light Work, agrees.

“It’s unbelievable to me. I’m terrified,” she said. “Fundamentally, it’s so important to people. It just feeds your soul.”

But Hodgens doubts the NEA and the CPB will disappear entirely. Despite her unfavorable view of the Trump administration, Congress’s recent failed attempt to repeal former President Barack Obama’s healthcare law convinced her there is hope for rational lawmakers. But she still feels a sense of urgency because of how valuable the arts are.

“If you don’t have the humanities and the arts, you’re not telling the story about who you are,” Hodgens said. “And if you’re not telling stories to each other about who you are and what you are, then it’s all just business and science. It’s just too dry.”

That trace of confidence exists in some public media circles, too. Michael Ameigh, WRVO Public Media’s general manager, considers the proposed CPB elimination with both “guarded optimism” and practicality. Based on his experience, staunch public broadcasting support has shielded the endowments from Republican efforts to eliminate it in the past.

“It’s the arch-conservative approach: ‘You shouldn’t be funding public broadcasting and we don’t like these guys because they’re too liberal.’ They hear from their own constituents who are conservative,” he said. “‘Leave that alone. (Public broadcasting) is one of the few sources out there of information that is credible.’”

Along with donations from listeners and funding from underwriters, $200,000 of WRVO’s $3 million budget comes from an annual CPB grant, Ameigh said. So, while WRVO could survive a CPB cut, it would take a hit that would mainly affect payroll and the station would have to seek out other sources to round out the budget.

“That’s not to say we can’t do that,” Ameigh said. “But it would be something that wouldn’t happen overnight.”

Kevin Kloss, WAER content and operations manager, paints a similar picture for his radio station should the CPB get the axe.

“We’d have to rethink the way we run our operation in terms of resources and staffing,” Kloss said. “If there’s something happening in Syracuse, if there’s something happening in Auburn — we may not have the resources to cover both of those stories.”

Like Ameigh, Kloss’ outlook is positive but wary.

“It’s not the first time we’ve seen something like this, but it is the first time we’ve seen a president like this,” Kloss said. “It is a very real threat, but I think it’s going to get saved once it gets to Capitol Hill.”

While Trump presents a new threat to these endowments, the ‘80s and ‘90s were golden eras of public funding backlash. Ronald Reagan worked to defund the NEA when he came into office in 1981. Joe Whelan, Syracuse Stage’s marketing director, points to the controversy surrounding photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In 1989, the tour of Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit exhibit “The Perfect Moment” became the nexus of activism against the NEA.

“Since that time, you’ve heard people say, ‘We need to abolish the NEA because they’re supporting homosexuals. They’re supporting pornographic art,’ which is just a smoke screen and an inaccurate portrayal of what the NEA does,” Whelan said.

Joe Whelan

Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

As seen in the 1998 Supreme Court case “National Endowment for the Arts vs. Finley,” the NEA tightened its grip on decency standards post-Mapplethorpe. And before that, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich led the movement to cut the NEA in 1995.

Whelan cites a few reasons why Congress wouldn’t extinguish these grants now, including that these endowments comprise a small portion of the budget. Of the $1.1 trillion at the government’s disposal, only $148 million goes to the NEA and $445 million goes to the CPB.

Whelan has also seen the benefits of public funding for art on society’s minds and wallets.

“Cutting the NEA would be a job-killer because many arts organizations become hubs for other businesses. They not only support people who work in the arts organizations, but restaurants and things around these arts organizations,” Whelan said.

He said larger cities like New York and Los Angeles can support their own arts organizations, but smaller markets won’t have the same chance at making it past the cuts. The start of fiscal year isn’t until Oct. 1, but for those who rely on these grants, this issue feels like it’s right on the doorstep.

“If you get out to a more rural area, smaller cities, the importance of the NEA increases and these are places that are hurting anyway,” he said. “Why would you want to hurt them more?”


Top Stories