Lisa Kranseler faces a wrenching decision, one on the agenda of nearly every cultural organization affected by the Great Recession. She runs the Seattle-based Washington State Jewish Historical Society, a group founded in 1968 that preserves and presents the story of the state’s Jewish community. A current project, "Who’s Minding the Store," chronicles the Jews’ role in building familiar Northwest businesses, such as Fox’s Gem Shop and the Alaskan Copper Works. Working part-time, supervising one employee, one contractor, and 60 volunteers, Kranseler manages WSJHS with a $130,000 operating budget. Now she must decide whether the contractor will keep his job.
Her dilemma is tied directly to the slow economy. Income from her group’s most recent annual fundraiser was down 25 percent from the previous year. Of course, WSJHS is not unique. According to a survey published in February, some large Seattle-area arts and heritage organizations saw contributions last year fall 50 percent or more. Many groups were forced to lay off staff. One respected heritage organization in east King County has cut three jobs.
WSJHS has to cut its expenses as well. The group’s one-day-a-week contract archivist completes his tasks in the University of Washington Library’s Special Collections section, but Kranseler says a subsidy that helps her pay for the archivist may end because of the downturn. If more money can’t be found, Kranseler will have to let the archivist go. “This will affect everyone utilizing the Special Collections,” she laments. “Researchers, students, educators, the community, and people from all over.”
In late 2008, the growth of unemployment in the cultural economy outpaced overall unemployment growth 2.4 percent to 1.9 percent. The Obama administration and Congress hoped to staunch the bleeding by giving $50 million of the $787 billion stimulus package to the National Endowment for the Arts. On July 7, Seattle's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, which makes arts policy for the City of Seattle, along with 4Culture, an independent agency that manages cultural funding within King County, announced a local distribution of $500,000 in NEA funds in an effort to preserve jobs.
The news was initially encouraging: Here was federal stimulus money reaching deep into the grass-roots of cities, towns, even neighborhoods. But then heritage groups read the fine print. It was clear they would get comparatively little. To qualify for Seattle's $250,000 share, for instance, they had to be among organizations already funded by the city’s Civic Partners program, which helps cultural groups with operating expenses. Of the 133 organizations that got Civic Partners money in 2009, just 10 came from the heritage sector. And most of those recipients were large, such as the Museum of History & Industry and the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum. Neighborhood groups, such as the Ballard Historical Society, Magnolia Historical Society, West Seattle’s Log House Museum, as well as WSJHS, can’t apply.
Things could’ve been worse. If the stimulus money were available a year ago, even fewer Seattle heritage groups would have been eligible. In 2008, the number of heritage organizations receiving Civic Partners money was about half of 2009. The increase this year occurred only after advocates pressured MOACA (the Mayor's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs) to open up the application process to groups focused on local-history education and interpretation. Until this year, MOACA had barely acknowledged heritage groups’ needs.
That’s not to say Seattle has ignored heritage. The Seattle City Council has financed some activities on a case-by-case basis. In fiscal years 2008 and 2009, the council allocated a total of $392,000 for a city-promoted celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. However, little of the money has reached small organizations, and the project ends this year. Given the city’s fiscal problems, it’s unlikely the council can support future heritage programming at the same level in the near term.
In the case of 4Culture’s quarter-million-dollar share, only groups that had received subsidies from its Arts Sustained Support program last year are eligible for a check. The program funds 187 organizations with a total of $1.1 million in support. As with the city's program, only one or two heritage organizations received money in 2009 through the Arts Sustained Support program.
Why the near-exclusion of heritage groups from this federal stimulus program? Federal rules limit MOACA and 4Culture’s options in making awards. Other federal agencies, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the federally funded Institute for Museum and Library Studies, both of which support historical museums, failed to get a share of the stimulus package and therefore can’t create their own job preservation program. And in the political arena, arts groups are far more sophisticated and united than heritage advocates when it comes to lobbying local, state, and federal governments for funds. Even though each has equal passion, the voice of heritage is a squeak compared to the arts’ roar.
But the biggest reason is a collective failure — at least in terms of public policy — to view heritage work as an integral part of our cultural economy, of a piece with the visual arts, the performing arts, music, and dance. As a society, we prefer to pigeonhole these segments, isolating them from one another, when in fact they are tightly interconnected. Over the long term, heritage typically gets the least attention.
It’s probably too late to fix the specific problem of eligibility for the NEA funds. But it’s not too late to demand from policy-makers that heritage be viewed as a equal partner in all cultural endeavors. It has as much to contribute to community quality of life as music, sculpture, or theater.
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