The Arts

Arts at the precipice

How will Taos be affected by possible arts funding cuts?


The National Endowment for the Arts is an independent federal agency supporting the arts in the United States. In March 2017, President Donald Trump’s administration released its budget proposal for fiscal year 2018, which includes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, among others.

Keep in mind this is a proposed budget. The president’s budget proposal is the first step in a long process. Congress will decide where it goes from here.

Without NEA funds, some arts organizations will survive, some will not. An NEA grant is more than the money itself; it is the recognition that something you are doing is worthwhile, that it is recognized as such and that it is recognized by your peers as an act of creativity. The arts, it almost goes without saying, have trickled into the very being of what it means to live in Taos.

In 2017, the state of New Mexico Arts Division granted 179 arts organizations a total of $1,006,450. Of that amount, $476,800 came through NEA funding. In Taos County, funding was granted to 16 organizations for a total of $85,275. The grant procedure of the New Mexico Arts Division stresses outreach to rural areas and how that organization will include cultural diversity as an integral part of its agenda.

The germination of the NEA and the NEH was a direct result of the success of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from the 1930s. In Taos and Northern New Mexico, the WPA had an enormous impact. “Never before had the Federal Government funded art on such a scale … underlying each [work of art] was the idea that art mattered, and that artists were contributing members of the community,” according to “A More Abundant Life, New Deal Artists and Public Art in New Mexico” by Jacqueline Hoefer (2003, Sunstone Press). The 1934 fresco murals in the Historic Taos County Courthouse are testament and tribute to that support of Taos artists by the WPA.

Through the years, the NEA enabled art to flourish across the nation. During the Cold War, abstract expressionist painters were showcased across the world as members of a homegrown American art movement. Artists in the U.S. were creative in new and different ways. America was a place where artists could thrive, unhindered from oppression.

At the signing into law of the NEA and NEH, President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) stated in September 1965: “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage, for it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Art has created controversies throughout the years. Today, art still pushes the envelope as it creates heated exchange and provokes thought. You may not like an artwork and might not understand an intention, but for now, we are entitled to our opinions, free to disagree, to form our own opinions.

Then, in April of 1989, President Ronald Reagan (R-California) attempted to eliminate the NEA.

Congress at that time did not allow this to happen. In the early 1990s, the U.S. faced what became known as the culture wars, eventually triggering major cutbacks to NEA funds. As artists of the time began creating art in response to the AIDS epidemic, Andres Serrano was singled out (among others) as having his controversial work exhibited and funded by the NEA. Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (1987) led a jittery Congress to ask why the government was funding such irreverent artworks.

As a result, direct funding of individual artists was completely eliminated. The government now laid a watchful and suspicious eye on what exhibitions and programs were being funded.

“Cutbacks will definitely affect the nonprofit organizations,” Taos artist Maya Torres said. “Somehow, like a ship that doesn’t sink, art keeps bobbing its head up through the storms and waves of history. … Strangely, I think more art will be made now as a counteraction. Maybe the private sector will start supporting art again by buying work from living artists. Patrons are the biggest supporters of independent artists, not so much the NEA. Nixing the NEA symbolizes a step towards a soulless country. It is devastating and a blow to the millions of artists here.”

As a creative center in New Mexico, Taos has accepted all types of artists through the years. The art and institutions supporting the arts here have struggled at times and yet survived with that little bit of extra support with funds from the NEA and NEH. In the past 20 years, NEA funding has directly supported the Harwood Museum of Art, Millicent Rogers Museum, Music from Angel Fire, SOMOS, the Taos Center for the Arts, Taos Talking Pictures, Puppet Theatre los Titiriteros and ArcTisTics and the Taos Poetry Circus. Indirectly, NEA funds have also been filtered through the state of New Mexico Arts Division, which is then able to grant funding to other local arts organizations.

The Poetry Education Project was an events program for children and youth, supported initially by SOMOS, afterwards in 1991 by the Taos Poetry Circus. Through the organization’s work, the Taos Pueblo Children’s Theatre showcased bilingual performances of “Coyote Tales” around the state from 1986-89. Children from Taos Pueblo Day School learned the traditional tales in the Tiwa language, then translated them into English for performances presented for free on Taos Plaza. These events were supported by the New Mexico Arts Division.

“The proposed defunding of the NEA’s budget would gut our nation’s long history of support for artists and arts programs and it would deprive all our citizens of the culture and diversity the humanities brings to our country,” Robert Redford stated in his March 2017 Sundance Institute Blog. “This is entirely the wrong approach at entirely the wrong time. We need to invite new voices to the table, we need to offer future generations a chance to create, and we need to celebrate our cultural heritage.”

Millicent Rogers Museum Executive Director Caroline Jean Fernald was helpful in explaining that much of the museum’s grant money has been received through the New Mexico Arts Foundation, which is partially funded through the NEA.

The museum had received funds from the NEA directly in support of its 50th anniversary (2006). Millicent Rogers Museum has stressed cross-cultural connections through its collections of Native American and Hispanic arts. The museum stands out in Taos through its Northern New Mexico focus. Fernald said, “If we were to lose our NEA-New Mexico Arts funding, we would survive, maybe scale back a little. The bigger problem is to then reach out to the community, to private donors to pick up the loss of grant money.”

The Society of the Muse of the Southwest (SOMOS) has also been fortunate enough to receive NEA funding through the years. Alan Macrae, its board president, said, “The arts are the health of a community, the arts permeate our culture, the arts improve our lives. SOMOS’ mission shall remain the same, no matter what happens.” Recently, its first writers conference was considered a great success, bringing in all aspects of the Taos community, including Native American and Hispanic writers. SOMOS relies on grants from organizations like the NEA to get it through the year.

Dennis Edwards, interim executive director for Music from Angel Fire, said NEA funds have supported music programs in Taos and Angel Fire for the past 34 years. Music from Angel Fire has been able to provide free concerts to the families of Taos. Many of these concerts have been broadcast on National Public Radio.

Support from the NEA helped make the Harwood Museum’s major exhibition, “Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West,” possible. This 2016 show received one of the largest NEA grants awarded to any Taos institution in the past 20 years. The NEA endorsement was also a stamp of approval, showing that this was an exhibit worthy of support from other funding organizations. It also presented Taos in a favorable light. This traveling exhibit is now at the Burchfield Penney Museum in Buffalo, New York.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), along with Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan), have proposed the Comprehensive Resources for Entrepreneurs in the Arts to Transform the Economy (CREATE) Act to stimulate the development of arts businesses, jobs and the creative economy in New Mexico, Michigan and across the nation.

This would support artists, entrepreneurs and workers employed in tourism and cultural development in growing their businesses, accessing federal resources and funding and expanding their networks with local communities.

Udall said, “With more artists per capita than any other state, New Mexico is home to one of the most vibrant artistic communities in the nation, and our artists play a vital role in shaping our culture, attracting tourists and creating jobs. One in 10 jobs in New Mexico is related to arts and culture. I want to hear from you about this bill and how the arts are important to your community. Please share your ideas with me — through letters or phone calls to my office or on my website or social media — about how we can continue to grow the arts in our communities.”

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) said, “The president’s budget will have a deep and devastating impact on New Mexico — especially when it comes to funding for arts and cultural programs. The budget utterly ignores John F. Kennedy’s vision for America, which has guided our nation for more than 50 years. President Kennedy said, ‘I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.’ The budget shortsightedly defunds the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services and, by extension, may suppress other federal funding for cultural programs, educational institutions and artistic platforms – which are important elements of New Mexico’s character and culture.”

The NEA, NEH and even public television appear to be at a precipice. No one really knows yet whether or not these institutions will face cutbacks or lose funding completely. Everything is on the table with the new administration’s budget proposal.