It was such a great honor to be selected from the small city of Gadsden as one of four arts leaders throughout the U.S. to join Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C., in April to advocate for funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. I was able to meet directly with Alabama’s Fourth Congressional District Rep. Robert Aderholt as well as the staff of Sens. Richard Shelby and Doug Jones.
D.C. welcomed me with perfect weather and beautiful sights as the famous cherry blossoms were still in bloom.
During the first day of my trip, I worked with the staff at Americans for the Arts to prepare for my meetings on Capitol Hill. Rep. Aderholt and Sen. Shelby are in positions of great influence when it comes to the budget, and I am especially glad that they are my friends and supporters of the arts.
In preparation for my meetings, I gained further insight on the impact that the NEA has on life here in Alabama.
The NEA has made significant contributions to the arts in Alabama at large and even in our smaller community of Gadsden. In the past five years, the NEA awarded 74 direct grants to nonprofit and governmental arts organizations and programs in Alabama. Five of these came directly to our congressional district so that 20,400 adults and children could experience the arts. Specifically, a multi-day workshop series conducted by Marshall County called Melodies and Musings has received generous grants from the NEA for five consecutive years. This series helps retired senior citizens learn more about the district’s heritage through music education.
The program uses local artists to instruct older adults on how to play the dulcimer, a banjo-like instrument used in the Appalachian region of the U.S., and culminates with a public concert of traditional mountain music that further educates the community on its Appalachian legacy.
In addition to these direct grants, 40 percent of the NEA’s annual grant-making budget is awarded directly to states and regions to ensure every state and congressional district receives federal arts funding. Thanks to this generosity, the Alabama State Council on the Arts and South Arts have received more than $11.7 million in grants over the past five years. The recipients of indirect grants from our state arts agency and regional nonprofit arts organization include Gadsden-area arts organizations such as the Gadsden Cultural Arts Foundation, the Gadsden Museum of Art, the Gadsden Symphony Orchestra and the Etowah County Board of Education.
Grants that originate from the NEA make it possible for these cultural and educational organizations to strengthen our community through arts experiences such as field trips, free concerts and youth arts programming. Furthermore, arts and cultural organizations contribute immensely to our economy. According to the 2017 Creative Industries report, Alabama’s Fourth Congressional District is home to 539 arts-related businesses that employ 5,376 people.
A trip highlight was attending a joint Americans for the Arts and Congressional Arts Caucus memorial service to honor of the late Rep. Louise Slaughter, a stalwart supporter of the arts and longtime co-chair of the Congressional Arts Caucus. The reception was an opportunity for those who loved Louise to speak about her and hear a moving tribute performed by John Lloyd Young, a Tony Award-winning actor for his role as Frankie Valli in Broadway’s “Jersey Boys.”
I am happy to report that in the month following my trip, the U.S. House voted to increase funding by $2 million for both the NEA and NEH, bringing them up to $155 million each for Fiscal Year 2019. Recently, the U.S. Senate matched that increase under the leadership of Sen. Shelby, chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, which determines funding for the nation’s cultural agencies.
A great deal has happened since my visit in April, and it is gratifying to know that my advocacy efforts with Rep. Aderholt, Sens. Shelby and Jones and other members of Congress have resulted in furthering this important bill.
Overall, through this trip, I made new friendships, became a more informed arts advocate and asserted my voice on vital issues facing the arts. I left D.C. feeling empowered to educate my community and to foster other arts advocates, because if I’ve realized anything, it’s that even a small-town arts leader’s voice can make a difference. In the future, I hope to see many more locals continue to engage with the arts and culture in our community — by visiting free events such as First Fridays in downtown Gadsden — soon!
Bobby Welch is executive director of the Gadsden Cultural Arts Foundation.