How Trump’s arts-funding cuts will affect Brooklyn

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President Trump’s dream budget is a nightmare for Brooklyn artists!

The Donald’s proposal to eliminate federal arts funding will drain millions of dollars annually from the borough’s creative organizations, gutting programs that serve Kings County’s poorest communities and cementing music, theater, and dance as luxuries for the elite, according to local arts gurus.

“It would be devastating,” said Diane Jacabowitz, founder of Park Slope dance school Dancewave, which offers discounted instruction and teaches in schools that don’t have arts classes of their own. “Everyone will start focusing their clientele, which makes it arts for the rich, which is the story we’ve known for too long. It makes it divisive.”

In 2016, Brooklyn-based organizations collectively scored at least $2.7 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, part of a whopping $13 million since 2012 — and that doesn’t include outfits headquartered elsewhere that work in the borough or state arts grants, which are partially funded through the federal program.

But Trump wants to scrap the scheme — along with 18 other agencies — arguing that working families shouldn’t have to foot the bill for such frivolities.

“Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?” his budget bigwig Mick Mulvaney said on MSNBC last week. “The answer is no.”

Actually, you can, say local arts buffs — the country’s hardest-done-by are exactly the people who benefit from the publicly-funded programs, and they really appreciate it too.

“It’s insulting to say that people of a certain economic status don’t have an appreciation or need for arts,” said Robyne Walker Murphy of Groundswell, a Gowanus outfit that employs young adults to lead public-mural painting projects, and receives around $70,000 in grants each year. “I’ve worked in some of the most marginalized communities and I can’t tell you how many parents, mostly people of color, have talked about the importance arts play in their children’s lives.”

New York is hardly short of deep-pocketed arts philanthropists, and the federal grants account for just a portion of many local groups’ overall funds — but they often pay for things that other benefactors won’t, administrators say.

For the Brooklyn Arts Council in Dumbo, that’s folk art. Many private foundations want to see people on stage singing and dancing in exchange for their donation, but aren’t so enthused about paying someone to spend weeks working with an immigrant community to document their basket-weaving traditions, according to the council’s head honcho.

“It’s not a one-hit production, it’s years and years of work,” said Charlotte Cohen, the executive director of the Dumbo organization, which has been receiving the grants since the early 1980s and covers a third of its Folk Arts program with the grants.

Likewise, the popular Rooftop Films festival has no problem finding companies to sponsor its open-air screenings on buildings in the borough’s hippest neighborhoods, but the Feds foot the bill for free kids’ sessions in Coney Island and East New York to the tune of $50,000–$70,000 a year, according to an organizer.

“[Losing the grants] is not going to put us out of business, but it could stop us doing events we really want to do,” said artistic director Dan Nuxall. “NEA funding is really what we use events that might not have a lot of corporate sponsorship support, might not have tickets.”

Top show: Rooftop Films screens some flicks on top of Sunset Park's Industry City.
Rooftop Films

Of course, Trump’s budget is really just a serving suggestion for Congressional Republicans, many of whom have already come out against it.

And given the National Endowment for the Arts’ $148-million budget is really a drop in the ocean of overall federal spending, the creative types are hopeful it will ultimately prove as popular as Trump Steaks and Trump Airlines with conservatives.

“I’m going to talk to as many people in Congress on both sides of the aisle — the arts is a bipartisan issue,” said Jacabowitz, who is on Capitol Hill this week lobbying pols. “Even a right-wing churchgoer goes to see their choir singing.”

National Endowment for the Art grants by zip, 2012–17. Note that some organizations, such as the Brooklyn Public Library or Groundswell, are listed at their offices, but run programs all over the borough.

2016’s largest recipients

AmDoc: The Dumbo documentary creator got a combined $170,000 to continue its “Point of View” films on PBS and “America ReFramed” series on World Channel.

Arts East New York: $100,000 went to the East New York organization to help pay for artist residencies, an artisan market, community-planning workshops, and arts entrepreneurship training.

StoryCorps: The Fort Greene multimedia outfit, which helps ordinary people record extraordinary stories from their lives, scored $100,000 to help with its weekly radio segment on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

Bric: The Fort Greene organization got a combined $85,000 for its free Prospect Park concert series Celebrate! Brooklyn and to teach visual art in “underserved” schools.

Rooftop Films: The summer film festival got $75,000 to fund its popular al-fresco screenings.

Archipelago Books: The Gowanus publisher nabbed $70,000 to publish and promote its translations of foreign fiction and poetry titles.

Reach deputy editor Ruth Brown at rbrow[email protected]local.com or by calling (718) 260–8309. Follow her at twitter.com/rbbrown.
Folk yeah: Aziz Peerzada and his 11-year old son Saboor peform Punjabi songs as part of the Brooklyn Arts Council’s Folk Arts program.
Photo by Christopher Mulé