When I look at the work of artist Shannon Eakins, an MFA candidate at UNLV, it makes me think—and feel—in new ways about art, about relationships, about instincts. It also inspires me. And it connects me with something in the artist, and in other people. Eakins is one of several artists who will be featured at the Contemporary Arts Center’s exhibition twenty twenty starting August 30, a celebration of the 20th anniversary of both the CAC and UNLV’s Master of Fine Arts program. The recognition of two of Vegas’ arts pillars comes at a prime moment to consider the significance of public funding for the arts—as state funding wanes.
Why should taxpayers fund the arts? On the National Endowment for the Arts website, Chairman Rocco Landesman answers: “The arts are central to our nation’s civic, economic and cultural vitality. The arts reflect who we are and what we stand for. Freedom of expression, imagination and vision.”
At the Nevada Legislature last spring, the Nevada Arts Council, which distributes public funds to Nevada artists, organizations and schools, faced a dogfight for limited state dollars. It’s a difficult time to advocate for anything not tangibly associated with economic survival, so NAC Director Susan Boskoff cast the arts in exactly that way: vital to our economy. But always lurking unspoken in that framework of arts advocacy are sentiments like Landesman’s: It’s central to our vitality.
Boskoff asked lawmakers to restore NAC’s budget to the previous biennium’s $1.8 million, saying: “The arts are an industry—one that supports jobs, generates government revenue and is the cornerstone of tourism. New economic research shatters the myth that support for the arts comes at the expense of economic development ...”
Nevertheless, the arts budget was cut by 43 percent under the previous biennium. The setback pushed Nevada further down on the national arts-funding rankings; now we’re 42nd in the amount per capita of state dollars spent on the arts: 43 cents per person.
This turned into cuts in funding for many of Southern Nevada’s arts organizations—for the CAC, for individual artists and projects, for the Nevada Ballet Theatre and the Las Vegas Philharmonic, among others. For example, in Fiscal Year 2007, the NAC gave CAC $5,404; in FY 2010 it was cut to $2,311. (Diane Bush, CAC board member, says it typically costs at least $1,000 to install one exhibit.) Similarly, NAC funding for the Nevada Ballet Theatre shrank from $18,025 to $10,071; the Las Vegas Philharmonic from $19,799 to $10,276.
Of course these numbers don’t wholly reflect each organization’s budget—revenue streams vary, as arts organizations are funded from a combination of public funds, foundation grants, private donations and ticket sales. “It’s a mixed bag of dollars that keeps our arts afloat. They’re all really important depending on our shifting times,” Boskoff says. “It’s public dollars that keep prices affordable and accessible.”
So as the 2009-10 arts season prepares to kick off this fall, the NAC plans to do a formal survey of grantees to assess the specific damage wrought by cuts.
“I think that each case is very unique. They’re struggling in different ways. In larger institutions public funding has oftentimes paid for positions or significant programming. In smaller nonprofits, some may end up closing their doors.” Las Vegas faces bigger challenges than Reno, she says, because Reno’s arts community is more established in a busy downtown corridor that doesn’t compete with the Strip. “Not so true in Las Vegas,” Boskoff says. “Artists say it’s so hard to be heard beyond the noise of the neon.”
This may be a weary issue for Las Vegans, coupled with the fresh round of state funding challenges, but there’s something about the omnipotence of art and the hardscrabble work of non-profits that promises recovery.
In fact, 39 Nevada arts organizations were the recent recipients of pass-through dollars from the federal stimulus plan—thanks, Rocco Landesman. The NEA provided $250,000 in a one-time Band-Aid called Sustaining Nevada’s Arts Programs. “We had 61 applications asking for more than two times that much [$250,000],” Boskoff says.
The CAC received $10,000, which Bush says will help fund the position of director, which has been vacant for several months. With the help of a director who can solicit corporate sponsorship, CAC can better buck the economy—good news for artists like Eakins, and the viewers she helps to think, feel and connect.