Art Matters: Proposed NEA Elimination Threatens Performing Arts Community
It’s a Saturday night and the audience at the Power Center for the Performing Arts is stunned. Silence floods the walls of the theater. I can almost hear the person next to me holding their breath. The stage I’ve performed on eight times since I started my dance training at the University of Michigan is tense and torn, like I’ve never experienced before. “Betroffenheit” by Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre has the full house of 1,200 people in a standing ovation. Tears, shock and wonder fill the audience.
“Betroffenheit,” a theater-dance performance, is a visual and physical representation of grief, addiction and trauma. Based on writer and performer Jonathan Young’s experience of losing his daughter and cousins to a fire, the combination of movement, sound and space is both arresting and thought-provoking. It’s the kind of physical, psychological and emotional effect we as performing artists strive to achieve in our years of training — something that crosses the proscenium stage and permeates the lives of the viewers — something that makes them question the world they inhabit.
Award-winning performances like “Betroffenheit” are hard to come by. During middle school and high school, I saw some artists of this caliber during trips to New York City, but these world-class performances came with expensive tickets that made seeing everything I wanted unrealistic. My orchestra ticket to see “Betroffenheit” in Ann Arbor though, was $20.
This year alone, the University Musical Society — an Ann Arbor-based performing arts presenter affiliated with the University — brought multiple internationally recognized artists to campus. The night before “Betroffenheit,” three-time Grammy award-winning jazz quasi-collective Snarky Puppy took Hill Auditorium. In early February, Ping Chong + Company, recipient of National Medal of Arts, did a theatrical performance on Muslim identity. Just a month before, Bessie Award-winning Ohad Naharin’s Israeli dance company, Batsheva, performed at the Power Center. In January, UMS announced that current New York Philharmonic president, Matthew VanBesien, will be the next UMS president beginning this summer. Last November, the Grammy award-winning Berlin Philharmonic did an orchestral residency with University students.
Since its establishment in 1880, UMS presents approximately 75 performances a year and hosts more than 100 educational events per season. In 2015, UMS was the first university-related arts presenter to receive the National Medal of Arts from then-President Barack Obama.
Looking back on these 138 years, the UMS line-up of performances is even more impressive. Before his retirement, Leonard Bernstein conducted four performances in the country with the Vienna Philharmonic; Hill Auditorium was one of them. In 2001, UMS president Ken Fischer started a multi-year partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company. And let us not forget that Yo-Yo Ma will be performing on campus this April. What’s most surprising is that students can see his performance for less than the cost of a dinner at any Main Street restaurant.
As a senior in high school applying to colleges, I researched the cities and local performance venues of each of the schools I considered attending. Ann Arbor stood out to me. Not only was I drawn to the quality of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s curriculum, but also the Ann Arbor arts environment itself. I considered conservatories in New York City and Los Angeles until I realized Ann Arbor offered the same opportunities — except here, I can go to a football game at noon and then an opera at night. Since I started my dance training at the University three years ago, I have seen and taken classes from artists I could maybe meet in New York City or Chicago or Montreal or Israel. Maybe. Needless to say, the School of Music, Theatre & Dance School is nationally ranked along with the performing arts conservatories on the coasts.
This performing arts bubble — Ann Arbor — from education to exposure, is a Midwestern gem for aspiring performers and the public, according to Aaron Dworkin, dean of the Music, Theatre & Dance School.
“We’re a very unique place, as it relates to the arts,” Dworkin said. “We are solidly in the Midwest, yet we have arts experiences, training and institutions that rival anything on the coasts,” Dworkin said. “We are in many ways in that center — whether it’s a presenter like UMS, whether it’s our school and the fact that we lead the nation in so many of our departments.”
Last Thursday, the Trump administration released a proposed federal budget calling for the complete defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Public funding for the arts had long been a low-hanging fruit for fiscal hawks — even though the annual cost of $741 million composes less than one-tenth of a percent of federal spending. But this announcement marks the first time in history that a sitting administration proposed to discontinue either the NEA or NEH.
The NEA is an independent federal agency founded by Congress in 1965. The organization provides financial support to arts organizations and projects across the country. Over the years, the organization has expanded its aid from performances and educational experiences to even health-care projects, like the NEA Healing Arts Partnership. Founded in 2011, the partnership works to promote arts therapy, placing art therapists in veteran hospitals across the nation.
Every year, the NEA funds various Music, Theatre & Dance School research projects and performances. The George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition — an ongoing scholarly analysis of Gershwin’s music — and Youth & Adult Community Programs — an educational program that exposes local Ann Arbor residents to different performances — to name a few who receive funds.
In 2016, the NEA awarded UMS with $30,000 to bring performances, residencies and other educational programs to Ann Arbor. “Betroffenheit” was one of them — in addition to the American Ballet Theatre, Camille A. Brown, Taylor Mac and others.
The proposed cuts were announced mere minutes before I was to interview the dean and assistant dean of the Music, Theatre & Dance School. When we sat down, it was clear they were still digesting the potential loss of the NEA.
Dean Aaron Dworkin, a member of the National Council for the Arts, which makes recommendations for individuals and organizations to be awarded the National Medal of Arts — the presidential award for outstanding artists — said he is unsure of the effects of the proposed budget, as it awaits a lengthy congressional revision process. He emphasized, however, the proposed budget suggests a lack of value placed on the arts in American society.
“Budgets are moral documents,” Dworkin said. “Budgets reflect the values of an institution or the values of a nation.”
However, he stresses to look at the opportunity the crisis brings, that “artists will rise to fill the vacuum that is created by the potential loss of the NEA.”
That same day, I interviewed UMS President Ken Fischer, who was visibly disturbed when we met. He argued the proposed budget is motivated by ideology and not a genuine desire to balance the budget.
“There seems to be no understanding of the role the NEA has been playing,” he said. “It gives grants that could maybe total the wing of a defense jet, but look at what it does to bring a quality of life to this country. UMS has received funding each year from the NEA. It is an important part of our budget, but what it is more than anything, is a statement that our country cares that the arts are important.”
Dworkin and Melody Racine, SMTD senior associate dean for academic affairs, also struck a defiant tone, emphasizing that with lost federal funding, it would be their responsibility to further provide platforms for artists to continue their craft.
“We must be artist citizens now,” Racine said. “We need to be very good at what we do in the arts, but we need to also be very aware of what’s happening in the political world. We need to be very aware of what’s happening with our planet. We need to be very aware with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. The more we know about outside our own field, the better ours becomes.”
The educational, administrative and entrepreneurial drive of the administration reassures me as an Music, Theatre & Dance student. Even if the discontinuation of public arts funding doesn’t survive the budget review process, it’s hard not to interpret the proposal as saying “the arts don’t matter.”
My attitude is not alone among Music, Theatre & Dance students. Spencer Schaefer, a Music, Theatre & Dance junior studying French horn performance and ethnomusicology, emphasized that he pursues his craft not for future potential wealth but for the sake of art.
“I think a lot of people are unaware of what it means to be an artist because they see dance, they see installations, they see artwork, they hear music, but don’t understand the time it takes, and what it means to someone,” he said. “These people aren’t cashing out and making tons of money off of this, no. This is putting a roof over their heads so they can continue to create their project — and maybe, they can come back and eat something.”
In a country where the performing arts are implicitly underappreciated, the role of the performing artist becomes more complex. There is no option to stop — if this is the language I’ve used for 18 years, there’s no forgetting it or learning a new one now.
When I look back on “Betroffenheit” and wonder why it affected me the way it did, I can’t come up with words to accurately describe the movement, or search for something in a thesaurus to find one that’ll fit. I tried.
When a performance does its job, it gives you the unutterable. It describes the space between your mind and your hands that desperately try to explain the sensation of an experience whether it is good or bad.
Schaefer agreed when we spoke about the role of the emerging performing artist.
“Even if I’m not going to make a dime off my art, that doesn’t mean it can’t impact someone and it still means something to me,” Schaefer said. “I’ll find a way to put a roof over my head, it’s never about that. I think that’s why the art is going to keep going. It’s so crushing to see that it could get more and more distant with the lack of funding from it, within the pop culture and main culture of society.”
This argument is reinforced by faculty. The word “quit” simply does not exist in the artist’s vocabulary.
“The best thing that we can do is to learn, prepare, train, become great artists,” Dworkin said. “The best thing you can do when the arts, or whatever field you’re working in is potentially diminished or under threat, is to become more excellent — to make a better argument for it. I’ve learned to not to predict the future, but project and prepare. Because luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
But I don’t know how I could have prepared for this. The proposed budget’s complete dismissal of the arts has made me question my craft and therefore identity. How do I tell my graduating friends that everything will be OK when the already minimal support for the starving artists is completely gone?
It’s less of a question of whether the arts matter — of course, they do. The question is how the aspiring, still unknown artist enters a world where their existence is undervalued. The dialogue starts sounding a lot like other conversations that have surfaced in the recent political climate.
As a violinist, multi-media artist and now an educator, Dworkin’s resilience is something I admire.
“From my perspective, there is no doubt,” Dworkin said, his voice unwavering. “It’s just that we have to make the case and make the argument, because the arts pervade so much of what we do — it’s just not recognized amongst many people how pervasive the arts are, and that the arts require training and facility. It’s not like you can magically play an instrument or sing or dance, it requires years of training, development, craft, ingenuity and creativity.”
Over the course of the last few days, this pervasiveness of the arts has been a recurring theme. Even as a performing artist in school with other performing artists, I sometimes lose sight of the breadth of this field. Fischer doesn’t.
“This will be one where I hope anyone who has been to a theater, dance or music performance, who owns an iPad, or an iPhone, and looks at the design, who drives a car, thinks: Who are the people designing these things that have made America great?” Fischer said. “They are people who have been artists and designers. For anyone to think it’s just a bunch of rich people going to see the Metropolitan Opera benefitting from this, they need to get their facts straight.”
The potential demise of the NEA and with it, the national support system for the arts, not only affects current artists, but future generations of artists as well. Whether they are in training like me, or haven’t yet picked up the violin or paintbrush, the lack of access to the arts has foreseeable consequences.
I know for a fact that I would not have pursued a college degree in this craft if I weren’t exposed to choreographers and dancers who made my jaw drop and entire body tingle when I was younger — I simply wouldn’t have pursued it if I didn’t experience the full-blown, unadulterated power of the artist myself. I wanted to communicate the unutterable.
The experience of the arts is irreplaceable. If I’ve learned anything from 18 years of training, it’s that live art is fleeting, but maybe for the same reason, most resonating. It seems most lively in the sense that it requires your fullest attention in the moment, to be stored in your memory, as more of a sensation than artifact. After all, it is an experience.
“We do the arts for the sake of the arts,” Dworkin said. “To me, the reason we want and need good health care is so that we can actually live, and experience the arts. We want to be healthy to be able to go. You don’t go to a concert for some other, ulterior purpose. You do it for the actual life experience, that quality of life. The arts are the reason why we live.”