The New Cultural Reality

Much of government funding for the arts over the past 50 years has been built on the premise that “matching funds” were the mark of a successful project. If an organization could come up with a match, it seemed to assure funders that the project would be viable.  For agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), it gave an additional aura of leveraging economic value and becoming a “serious” grant maker. On the flip side, this requirement was a high bar for most organizations. It undoubtedly discouraged many from applying, thus it kept the eligible pool of applicants limited to those who could find a sponsor. It also tended to weed out applications from newer emerging groups, which did not have access to money or longevity of purpose. As my colleagues in upstate New York would say “our organizations never even dreamed of an NEA grant.”  Now, largely due to COVID-19, even the most successful organizations are finding it difficult to set aside matching funds for grants they may or may not receive.

With some urging from advocacy groups like the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, Congress is proposing elimination of these matching requirements, at least in the age of Covid. This action would lessen the burden on all organizations. It also could be a win for cultural equity and social justice if it results in a welcome to new applicants and expands the pool of funded groups.  However, the peril is that it could further stretch a small, limited pool of funds to give smaller, less meaningful  grants weakening the entire system. Once again, this becomes an issue of funding.   Congress projects only $177 million for the NEA to serve the entire country and its newer more lofty aspirations. Those of us who watch this nickel and dime drama play out each year wish our government would once and for all stop quibbling and allocate enough funds to shine a light on the bold and beautiful pattern that is American diversity.  Just saying.