Kate Ostrander

Kate Ostrander

Déjà vu: The Federal Government Standstill’s Implications on the Arts

It seems inevitable.  When U.S. Senators take to the Senate floor and immediately follow their words insisting they don’t support a federal government shutdown with, “but if it were to occur,” it conveys a sense of forecasted inevitability.

When Members of Congress note their shutdown “fatigue” but can’t seem to find any rest, and when a White House memorandum planning for a shutdown states that the “Administration does not want a lapse in appropriations to occur,” you know it is coming.  All the while, a real sadness and profound loss surrounds the work of our federal government that is idled, stalled, and delayed—with real implications, especially the longer it lasts without resolution.

The first “shutdown day” may prove similar to a “snow day” – an inconvenience, a loss of productivity, and maybe a respite.  But as it continues, here is how the social and economic impact through arts and cultural policy might be felt throughout the nation and in our local towns.

Photo Credit: Associated Press, 1995

Photo Credit: Associated Press, 1995

  • During the federal shutdown in 1995, the vast majority of the staff members at the National Endowment for the Arts were sent home, leaving six staff on duty. This means that grants aren’t processed, programs and events are halted and NEA partners, including the 50 state arts agencies, are cut off from their primary federal cultural agency.
  • Head Start, a federal program that promotes the school readiness of children ages birth to 5 from low-income families, is reliant on federal dollars.  Look for these programs to shut their doors on critical work incorporating arts education into early childhood development programs.
  • The facilities of the Smithsonian Institution, including museums, and zoos will be closed every day the shutdown is in effect, inhibiting tourism, school trips, creative and innovativelearning opportunities, and ongoing preservation of arts and culture. According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) study of the last federal shutdown in 1995, closure of national museums and monuments resulted in a loss of 2 million visitors.
  • All national parks will close, including the more than 40 Artist-in-Residence programs throughout the National Park Service system.  The world-renowned Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, although also supported through a private foundation, would likely need to shutter its federally-supported operations. In 1995 there were closures of 368 National Park Service sites—a loss of 7 million visitors and local communities near national parks lost an estimated $14.2 million per day in tourism revenues.
  • Tourism and its associated economic driver and tax revenue generator will suffer. One measure of the loss to tourism is to expect visa processing delays. In 1995, 20,000-30,000 applications by foreigners for visas to come to this country went unprocessed each day and 200,000 U.S. applications for passports went unprocessed. Cultural centers receiving federal funds such as Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (the nation’s busiest arts facility) could face partial closure.

This is just a brief outline of the consequences a federal government shutdown will have on the arts:  Another self-created crisis that unfortunately seems inevitable.

Please add your feedback and perspective regarding the impact to the arts and cultural community, should a shutdown occur.

Update: The White House has posted federal agency contingency plans here, including those for cultural agencies such as the NEA.

2 Responses to “Déjà vu: The Federal Government Standstill’s Implications on the Arts”

  1. How many artists in the US actually benefit from art funding? Not many. In fact, it is not uncommon to see the same names — mostly associated with the NY art scene — over and over again. There is too much BIG NY art market politics wrapped up in funding… and with museums as well. A dent in the system is OK in my book — crash the gates.

  2. Today’s New York Times article, “Without Services, Small Businesses Feel the Pinch”, reports that business owners whose companies depend on government services such as a guaranteed loans, regulatory approval, and the operation of our national parks, worry about the toll the shut down may have on them. http://nyti.ms/17llreZ

    This hits on the same sour notes we’re hearing in the cultural sector of Montgomery County, MD. From the shutdown of the Glen Echo Park Partnership on Arts and Culture(GEPPAC), to ticket, subscription and season package sales at the National Philharmonic and at performance venues like historic Olney Theater around the County, the government shutdown is causing disruptions in business that are certain to damage the fragile upturn many in the arts and humanities sector had just begun to finally feel.

    Presenters are reporting that ticket sales have dropped precipitously, citing patrons who are both declining purchases and deferring plans in an effort to once again tighten their purse strings in these uncomfortably familiar uncertain times.

    With the school year ramping up, small businesses like the Puppet Co. and Washington Conservatory, to name but a few of the over 450 arts and humanities organizations and over 1500 individual artists in Montgomery County,MD, had just begun their seasons ten days ago. What was anticipated as the start of their seasons has turned into a non-starter.

    GEPPAC, situated squarely on National Park Service property, is home to 14 arts organizations like the Yellow Barn Studio and Gallery, Silver Works and other small businesses, all of which are shuttered, causing the Park to loose many of its 450,000 yearly patrons, students, evening and weekend crowds exponentially, day by day. Since the October 1 shutdown, conservative estimates of losses in our sector across the County reported to the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, MD have already exceeded $600,000 and will quickly topple $1M as this continues. These ten days of a government shutdown alone have been described as a catastrophic disaster. Moving performances and classes from GEPPAC has been an extraordinary challenge. Adventure Theatre is in the midst of its Goodnight Moon production to be followed by its annual Gala next week, and with the Park’s closure it finds itself with no venue for its performance or Gala while performers still need to be paid to stay available for the performance when the Park reopens.

    Not to mention what this does to our collective reputations! As small businesses, if your clients fear your venue’s vulnerability, with regard to opening and closing it’s doors, they are not likely to book the venue for weddings, receptions, rehearsals and other earned income opportunities, further depleting your organization’s coffers.

    And while we’re discussing impact, it’s critical to keep in mind that these organizations employ accountants, security personnel, carpenters, auditors, facilities and operations managers, students, interns, moms and dads, just like any other small business.

    Delays in funding from federal agencies, like the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, National Education Association and closures, like the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution and other agencies, have caused many in the arts and humanities to come to a screeching halt resulting in heavy damage to cultural tourism in the Greater Washington Metro Area, overall.

    Presently, we’ve heard only two good news stories. One, that libraries are booming(unless it is the Library of Congress!). This may be attributed to the fact that libraries are a great place to find things to do with your family while your are out of the office and can’t afford childcare and provides access to the internet (so that you can find a job that’s not with our irresponsible government).

    The second good news story is that we are in the midst of our eighth Nonprofit Energy Alliance round, which allows nonprofits in Maryland and DC to use their collective purchasing power to not only secure competitive electricity supply at lower cost, but to protect the environment and build a greener economy by supporting clean sources of energy that are essential to protecting our environment and building a new economy. That’s good news in that, if organizations can save on fixed costs, they’ll have a few extra bucks for program costs which are sure to rise the longer this standoff continues.

    So when Mr. Sherwin makes a comment like, “A dent in the system is OK in my book — crash the gates”, I hope he will consider this: the loss of income for many will have a trickle down effect that will ripple through the economy in all sectors. That ripple promises to wreak havoc with the country’s overall economy. And since it seems Mr. Sherwin follows the NY arts scene and may be a New Yorker, where the NY State Council on the Arts is one of the largest funders of the arts and humanities in the nation, I hope he is ready to have the gates crashed at his place. Because there are a lot of lighting directors, au pairs, engineers, and COO’s who are out of work, hungry, and looking for a seat at his table.

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