When I Got NEA Funding

Photo credit: Andrea Passoni, CC BY 2.0.

It wasn’t for me, of course. It was for a group of kids.

Since we’re all news-savvy types, most of us have probably already seen today’s big story:

Trump wants to cut the NEA and NEH. This is the worst-case scenario for arts groups

The budget plan, which calls for the elimination of four independent cultural agencies — the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — also would radically reshape the nation’s cultural infrastructure.

I could write an entire Billfold post on how the Corporation for Public Broadcasting changed my life, starting with Sesame Street and moving through Square One TV and the Anne of Green Gables miniseries. (Of these, I’d give Square One the biggest “actually changed my life” credit, since it taught me math concepts that were far beyond what I was learning in elementary school.)

But today I want to write about the two years I got National Endowment for the Arts funding.

If I were to tell you that, at one point in my life, I founded a children’s drama camp in my rural hometown, you would probably say “Nicole, you have done so many different things in your life that I cannot believe them,” and I will say “Me too. Often, I forget that I did this.”

But I did. Here’s how I described it on my resume, over a decade ago:

Launched the inaugural season of the CFT Summer Drama Camp, including writing a National Endowment of the Arts Rural Initiatives Grant; successfully increased both student participation and grant funding by 30% in our second year.

I’m really glad I wrote that resume, and then emailed it via Gmail so I could access it in the archives ten years later, because I had also forgotten about the “increasing both student participation and grant funding by 30% in our second year” part.

I do remember that the grant wasn’t huge. $500 the first year and $650 the second year, if my memory and my math hold up. But if we hadn’t had the money, we wouldn’t have been able to run the day camp. We needed art supplies and snacks and T-shirts, the usual camp stuff, and although we charged campers a very nominal fee ($15 with a sibling discount? I can’t remember) that wasn’t enough.

I launched the drama camp after I had spent a post-college year in Minneapolis trying to get my footing in the art world, which actually meant volunteering at a different children’s summer drama camp while working as a telemarketer for the Minnesota Orchestra. (Here’s my Billfold piece about that experience.) I remember telling myself that if I could just save $500, on my own, I could get a group of people together and put on a play.

I could not save $500, even though I timed my bus rides to take advantage of off-peak hours, tracked every expense in a spreadsheet like Your Money or Your Life suggested, and ate peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches because raisins were cheaper than jam.

I didn’t have an extra $500 when I started the drama camp in my hometown, either. A family friend suggested I write an NEA grant and helped me through the process—and the fact that I had help, both during the first year when I didn’t know how to start a drama camp and the second year when I went to grad school and another director took over, was one of the other big reasons why we were able to do this. (Creativity and community are linked, y’all.)

So I got help and we got the money, which meant we could do the camp, which meant that a group of kids had somewhere fun to go that summer. They played theater games and put on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (part of the NEA funding went towards getting the rights to Richard George’s children’s theater adaptation). Designed the sets themselves, out of posterboard and cardboard and paint and markers, because that’s how far the $500 went.

It was one of the best productions I’ve ever been a part of.

It was funny that I never thought of asking the NEA for funding. Never occurred to me that they would care about giving a small Midwestern town a few hundred bucks for a day camp. Today people probably think of crowdfunding projects like this instead of writing grants to arts organizations, even though the words “funded by the National Endowment for the Arts” are embedded into so many of our brains, the litany at the end of our favorite childhood programs: the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Viewers Like You.

And, because of that, maybe it’s hard to see organizations like the NEA as “important.” Just launch a Kickstarter, or get the parents to fund it! Even Sesame Street is now brought to us by the letters H, B, and O, right?

But the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, are essential.

If you don’t believe me based on one story about a drama camp that got a tiny amount of funding, that’s fine. Square One TV taught me that’s not how sample sizes work.

But the arts taught me that my story isn’t the only one out there.

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