Is it the end of the NEH as we know it? Despite what media coverage would have you believe, this is not the first time there has been a question about the National Endowment for the Humanities (and that for the Arts) and whether or not it will be sustained. (See this article from the conservative research group The Heritage Foundation which called for the elimination of both the NEA and NEH twenty years ago in 1997). I say this not because I think it is a good thing, nor to sound fatalistic, but simply to put it into perspective.
In a state like Illinois (where I currently live) we have dealt with the loss of our state museum in the past year, and with it, state grants that help to sustain small museums. Thus, the blow of losing yet another source of support and funding seems unsurmountable. On the other hand, in states like Minnesota, where the lottery funded Legacy Amendment provides a continual source of museum and cultural foundation funding, the idea of losing funding may seem less life-threatening but still ominous of a set of actions which could be put into motion. Either way, as hundreds of heritage professionals throughout the country have said, the situation is bleak.
Let me be clear here: Do I support the idea of funding the humanities? In my native Minnesotan tongue, “You betcha!” But, here is the clincher: This is an opportunity for the museum professionals of America.
How? Right now, at this moment, we have a platform. Instead of asking the people of the United States to beg their elected officials give us money, we ought to be funneling that effort into saying that whether or not the federal government makes this shift – they can support their local museums. Cultural institutions need their communities – they need an audience, they need a source of revenue, they need manpower in the form of volunteers. Museums cannot exist independently of their communities.
So far, the dialog I have been hearing about the loss of the NEH is ego-centric at worst and detached at best. In both cases, discussions have been largely about what the community gains from having a cultural institution (museum, library or art gallery, whatever the case may be). But it’s not a one-way street and it shouldn’t be.
When people invest in a place or a thing it becomes theirs. It means more to them because they paid for that. This doesn’t translate if they pay their taxes and their taxes go to unnamed mysterious arts and humanities institutions. It only translates if there is a conscious decisions to invest – and investment doesn’t have to be money, it can be time, input or even materials. Community investment is two-sided: it helps the community and it helps the institution.
Because of this benefit, we should be doing this whether or not NEH is on the chopping block. Now is simply an ideal time because the floodgates have been opened and a dialog can begin.