Graham Reynolds at Paramount Theatre during the 2016 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival on March 12, 2016 in Austin, Texas.

Graham Reynolds at Paramount Theatre during the 2016 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival on March 12, 2016 in Austin, Texas.  

Mike Windle/Getty Images for SXSW

Magnanimous, mysterious and by some accounts misunderstood, the National Endowment for the Arts is once again under scrutiny. To help shed some light, Billboard talked with a few recent recipients of NEA grants about the role of the organization and what they do with the money. 

Graham Reynolds, a composer, bandleader and performer who’s worked extensively with filmmaker Richard Linklater, the Austin Symphony Orchestra and his own Golden Arm Trio, has benefited from numerous NEA commissions during the past two decades. His current NEA commission is through theater collective the Rude Mechs, for their current Field Guide musical theater production.

“Part of what good funding does is to allow you to spend more time on a piece and get to a deeper level with it. The Rude Mechs are the slow-food movement of theater making, where they go through multiple iterations of a performance,” he says. “They premiere it, show it to audiences, change it -- and in the end they’ve become the most significant Texan theater-makers of our generation, and have had a real impact on theater-making.”

Reynolds believes a federal arts body is necessary to keep the U.S. engaged in the global arts dialog. “If we want to be leaders in the world in a positive way, politically, scientifically, and also artistically, we need a broad and healthy national conversation about art, and the NEA is a pivotal part of that. The NEA is the way so many artists go from being relevant locally to being relevant nationally and internationally.”

NEA funding also plays a role in the evolution of long-established art makers. For the past two seasons, the Louisville Orchestra has received NEA grants -- $10,000 in 2016 and $15,000 this year -- to help fund its three-week springtime Festival of American Music. Andrew Kipe, executive director of the Orchestra, says the total festival budget is about $300,000 and the NEA funds are used primarily to commission musicians and guest artists for the Classics Concerts that occur during the fest. “The funds are not applied to general operating costs per se, but to the other pieces that are key to making it a success,” he says.

Part of that success is the clout -- and domino funding -- an NEA grant begets, Kipe says. “It’s an acknowledgment that the organization is doing good work. The NEA doesn’t necessarily give full funding for a project, but having them in the mix is important from a perception standpoint, with audiences and other donors. It’s a stamp of approval and gives a level of confidence to other donors to know what most understand is a fairly rigorous process.”

It’s a stamp that’s been under its share of scrutiny during the NEA’s 52 years in existence. Although the grant application hasn’t changed much, Reynolds says, “the thing that changes most is the political climate that surrounds it. You never know which way the wind is going to blow, and who’s going to use the NEA as a political and verbal weapon. Jesse Helms is one of the biggest examples, but it happens all the time. Someone pulls out an example of a commission they don’t understand or don’t feel a positive relationship with, and throws it out as political ammunition to take down the NEA.”

“Arts funding is again up for dispute, and I’m always on the side that you’ve got to keep it there,” says Chris Koza, a Minneapolis-based film score composer and member of the group Rogue Valley, who’s received NEA funding for his work with the Minnesota Arts Fair, and a program through which he works with students in rural districts around the state. "It’s a small part of the pie -- why not just let it be?"

“We collaborate with the students and foster a conversation about what it means to be a creative, to create art,” Koza continues. “This is important to all students and schools, but especially in rural communities where the emphasis on arts and arts education is often not high. So the NEA is desirable in helping those kinds of outreach programs.”

Koza says he thinks the conversation around NEA funding can get diluted when people have only their self-interest in mind. “I’m not sure everyone in the general public feels they are benefiting from the NEA funds. They see [our] funding going to this rural school and think, ‘That doesn’t help me in my life.’ But it’s really much bigger than that… the thing about the NEA is that it funds arts that have an educational twist, and those would [otherwise] have a harder time finding a place.”

“There are tons of misperceptions about the NEA,” Kipe says. “The amount of money that’s given away is a relatively small amount compared to the federal budget, for one. There is definitely a brand issue that needs to be addressed with the organization and maybe now we have an opportunity with so much national attention being put on the possibility of  losing it to reset some of those expectations and assumptions.”

Should the NEA be defunded, Reynolds says, the effect would be profound, though not immediately realized. “It’s not like you close the NEA and suddenly all the paints will disappear from the store shelves. The impact would be much more subtle to the general public, but it would have a deep impact on the arts ecosystem,” he notes.

“It’s like what the scientists are doing in the pure research area is not loudly in front of the public,” he adds. “But just like pure science research is not going to happen without funding, neither is arts research. The pure research side of the arts is not something that’s easily funded by ticket sales or album sales or whatever it might me that drives the commercial side. The whole spectrum is needed.”

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