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What federal support for arts education looks like in California

ESL teacher Connie McOsker, community arts coordinator for the Grand Vision Foundation, stands with Carmen, a student in a Taiko, Japanese drumming class -- a weekly component of a class for adult English learners.
Priska Neely/KPCC
ESL teacher Connie McOsker, community arts coordinator for the Grand Vision Foundation, stands with Carmen, a student in a Taiko, Japanese drumming class -- a weekly component of a class for adult English learners.

On Friday afternoons, adults learning English at a school in Wilmington — a neighborhood near the Los Angeles Harbor — switch from vocabulary and grammar to Taiko, Japanese drumming. 

"It is really unusual, but it is very interesting how it motivates you to continue growing your vocabulary," said Carmen, who's been a student in the Taiko class for three years. She came to the United States from Guatemala five years ago and makes time for the ESL classes in between working as a housekeeper.

"Taiko pulls me to continue coming to school," she added.

"When you’re playing music, you think about listening and following and constantly pushing yourself to grow," said Kris Bergstrom, an instructor with the Los Angeles Taiko Institute, "and that’s the same thing you’re doing when you’re learning language."

The Taiko program for adult ESL students was developed by the Grand Vision Foundation, a San Pedro-based nonprofit, and is supported by a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

"We really couldn’t do that specific program without support from NEA," said Liz Schindler Johnson, executive director of Grand Vision Foundation. In addition to supporting the Taiko classes, the group produces live events, provides recorder lessons in nearby public schools, field trips and arts training for classroom teachers.

As the new administration pledges to shrink government spending, she and many other arts advocates are concerned that these programs could lose federal support. 

According to The Hill, many departments face budget reductions. But arts advocates are particularly concerned that Congressional funding for the NEA could be at risk, and those fears have triggered a smattering of petitions and op-eds. 

Grants from the NEA are a major part of the ecology of arts funding in every state and are a major support in bringing arts programming in schools and communities.

In California, more than 350 arts programs received grants from the agency in 2016, adding up to over $9 million. This includes everything from $99,500 to support a rural arts program in Fresno, to $10,000 to support an arts mentoring program in Venice.

(The NEA has a detailed logs of grant funding and you can explore all of the projects funded since 1998 here.)

While Schindler Johnson says the NEA grants don't make or break the budget at Grand Vision, they are a catalyst in leveraging support from other donors. About a third of their $600,000 budget comes from a combination of federal, state and corporate grants.

"From a perspective of running a small arts organization, there are really very few funding sources," she said. "It gives us a lot of recognition, it helps provide credibility to hundreds and hundreds of arts organizations in our country."

Organizations that receive NEA grants must get matching local funds as a condition to receive the money. According to the agency, each dollar NEA direct funding leverages up to $9 in private and other public funds, resulting in $500 million in matching support in 2016.

Organizations go through rigorous application processes and panel reviews, so getting a grant from the NEA is like getting a gold star in the field, advocates say. Ayanna Hudson, the director of arts education for the NEA, describes the grants as the "highest level of artistic excellence and artistic merit."

The agency declined to address the worries about Congressional cuts specifically, but Hudson did emphasize the agency’s role in expanding arts access.

In California, $1.2 million in 2016 went specifically toward arts education grants for pre-K through 12th graders, though many of the projects have a component of learning and community engagement.

"Most of our arts education funding is really focused on vulnerable youth across the country," Hudson said. "Fifty percent of arts education grants go to high-poverty communities, and 76 percent benefit youth in underserved communities."

Opponents of the NEA often argue that federal funding for the arts is a waste of resources, that it discourages individual donations to the arts, and that putting funding into the free market could actually level the playing field more by diversifying funding opportunities.

"I just don’t see it," said Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council. "I think if anything, it would exacerbate the strains and stresses that already exist in our society between philanthropy, where it goes and who it serves." 

Watson represents another branch in the ecological network of arts funding – state arts councils. In addition to providing direct grants to arts organizations, the agency supports arts councils in every state. Those councils, which also receive state funding, provide more grant funding to local arts organizations. 

The $148 million allocated to the NEA is a tiny slice of the federal budget, and in the past, plans to gut it have been overturned with bipartisan support. California poet laureate Dana Gioia was chairman of the NEA from 2003-2009, when it was recovering from big cuts made in the late 1990s.

"We gradually made Congress understand that the money that was coming into the NEA was reaching their community," Gioia said, "and doing things in their community that everyone recognized were valuable – especially in education."

Though he acknowledges the unpredictable nature of the current administration, Gioia is confident that the bipartisan coalition of support he helped to build will continue funding arts programs in communities across California and the country.