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Connecticut's Grassroots Arts Organizations Count The Cost Of Threatened Federal Cut

Mar 23, 2017

One of the federal agencies that would disappear under any implementation of the Trump budget proposal is the National Endowment for the Arts. Federal funding of the arts can be controversial, but in Connecticut, its beneficiaries argue that it’s misunderstood.

Behind a small shop front down a side street in New London, there was bustle on a tiny stage as the crew prepared for open mic night. It was Writers Block Ink, an after-school program for kids who want to create.

“Writer’s Block is an organization that empowers young people to be social change agents through the power of pen and prose, on the page and on the stage,” said interim director Kia Baird. Working with mentors in this space, kids age nine to 19 write, stage, and act in their own plays.

Alums of the program get their photos on the wall. Top left is Colton Harris, age 12.
Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR

Colton Harris, from Groton, was first introduced to Writer’s Block at the age of 12.

Now in his 20s, Harris has returned here to work. He can still remember his very first production.

“I played the little brother of the main character... they lived in a bad neighborhood, and he was shot and killed, and so the play was really just about the aftermath of that,” he said.

Harris said creating art that connects to people’s real lives can give kids a sense of control.

“Having this space and place to create, construct, constructively build something using their talents allows them to feel purposeful. So then when you have purpose you are less likely to poison that purpose with other things, right?” Harris said.

Writer’s Block is entirely funded by grants and donations, and about ten percent of its funding comes through the state from the NEA. It’s one of about 300 small- and medium-sized arts organizations in Connecticut that get this kind of federal funding; 40 percent of those are in high-poverty neighborhoods.

“There are so many areas that these programs touch that are not just arts for arts sake,” said Wendy Bury She's the executive director of the Southeastern Cultural Coalition, the body that administers NEA funded grant programs in this corner of the state.

Kia Baird, left and Wendy Bury at Writers Block Ink
Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR

She said 15 large arts organizations in the state get direct grants from the NEA -- nationally important bodies, like the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford. But the bulk of the federal money, $750,000, goes to Connecticut’s state arts agency which must then match those funds.

"So its $1.5 million, that then gets distributed out to really community, grassroots organizations doing really important work in the communities, mostly in underserved, in some of the rural areas," said Bury. "That’s where we’re really going to see a combination of hits."

Bury said she hadn’t expected Donald Trump to improve the position of the arts in this country, but zeroing out all federal funding was still a shock.

"I was pretty angry, frustrated," she said. "We knew this was going to be a challenge, but I think this is the first time a president has ever completely proposed to eliminate arts altogether. Hard to see it when it actually came out."

The NEA’s $148 million annual spend amounts to about 0.004 percent of the federal budget.