Mary Maxon was out raking hay on her tractor yesterday morning when a beep on her phone alerted her to the good news. The arts organization she runs on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota had just been awarded a $50,000 grant through the CARES Act.
“We have a 10,000 piece collection and we curate shows all year round,” Maxon said, describing the work of the Heritage Center at the Red Cloud Indian School. Up to three hundred Native American artists work with the center; it brings them into classrooms, the gallery, and the annual Red Cloud Art Show, which just celebrated its 52nd anniversary. “We know how to lift these artists up and we know how to sell their work, and we’re just raising the voices of this very creative community,” Maxon says. “There’s no Lakota word for art, but it’s essential to the culture.”
In the bleak wake of the pandemic, Maxon had to shut down the Heritage Center. She was able to retain her four full-time employees, but she wasn’t able to hire two open staff positions. That core staff will be supported by the CARES Act grant, says Maxon, which will also help them to buy equipment and get better trained to move operations online.
The Heritage Center is among 846 arts organizations across all fifty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico chosen by the National Endowment of the Arts to receive these $50,000 grants. They range from the Women of Color Quilters Network of Westchester, Ohio to southern Colorado’s Chamber Orchestra of the Springs, to the Monterey Jazz Festival in California to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
Nine local arts agencies also received grants of $250,000 to distribute through their own funding programs. The total, $44.5 million, makes up a little more than half of the $75 million allotted to the arts in the CARES Act legislation signed by President Trump on March 27. (A few weeks later, in April, the NEA distributed nearly $30 million of that funding to state and regional arts agencies.)
“I’m thankful we got the $75 million because it is helping,” says NEA chairman Mary Anne Carter. Still, she wishes it was more. More than 3,100 eligible applicants tried to get CARES Act grants through the NEA, at what would’ve been a total combined cost of $157 million.
“I’ve said this over and over, the demand is so much greater than the supply,” Carter says, pointing out that many of the arts organizations left without government assistant rely on ticket sales, and few places have been able to sell tickets. “Times are drastic. Our arts organizations are suffering. They don’t know if they’re going to survive, let alone reopen.”
The CARES Act grants have been distributed more or less evenly among organizations of various sizes, with roughly a third going to organizations with budgets of more than a million, a third to mid-sized arts organizations and a third to small organizations with a budget of under $500,000, such as Centro Cultural Aztlan, a Chicano/Latino arts center in San Antonio, Tx. Its executive director, Malena Gonzalez-Cid, describes herself as “elated.”
“Here in San Antonio, the arts are funded through the hotel and motel tax, so eighteen days after the shutdown, the city pulled the funding for the arts,” she explains. The CARES Act grant will enable her to continue to meet operating costs and payroll for her small staff of three full-time and three part-time employees, she says. “It’ll get us through the next quarter, and that way we’ll get to see what the city’s going to do. Everybody’s taking it right now a month at a time.”
Gonzalez-Cid says she hopes the crisis may be an opportunity for communities to re-evaluate their own arts funding. Mary Anne Carter hopes that will be true of the country as well. “The arts account for about $877 billion of our GDP and that just stopped overnight,” she says, adding that arts may be needed more right now than at any other point in U.S. history, not just to help the economy but to help the country heal.