National Public Radio's forward-looking music programming including its weekly Tiny Desk Concert Series, its stretching-the-envelope musical performances at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center and concerts at UB's Center for the Arts that rank among my most sublime live music experiences were all made at least partly possible by government grants from the government.
All of them are on a new endangered list.
One day before he was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, word leaked via Washington, D.C. political journal The Hill that Donald Trump would commence his plan for budget-slashing with a three-pronged attack on the arts.
“The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely,” the piece stated, linking these cuts to an overall Trump Administration plan to cut federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years.
The NEA and the NEH both receive about $150 million annually from the government. Based upon the current $3.8 trillion federal budget, these specific cuts would remove 0.02 percent from the annual figures.
While the proposed move to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would not necessarily spell its demise – about half of the CPB’s operating budget comes from public support - it’s likely that the programming on the corporation’s 350 public television and National Public Radio stations will be at the very least altered when the move is made from public to private funding.
What does the cutting arts funding and public broadcasting in the new administration actually mean to the average Jane and Joe? And what is the message being sent by these proposed cuts?
At least we know "Sesame Street" is safe, having (perhaps presciently) flown the coop for HBO in late 2015. (Public television stations are currently granted access to new episodes of the evergreen educational children’s favorite for free.)
But what about everything else? The government awards the CPB $445 million annually, of which 10 percent goes to NPR, the rest coming from public pledges. That means, for NPR to continue as it now exists, that 10 percent will most likely have to come from listeners.
Many music fans value NPR, particularly its consistently forward-looking programming like its NPR Tiny Desk Concert hosted by All Songs Considered’s Bob Boilen, and offering perhaps the most diverse and inclusive presentation of new music in all of the digi-sphere. Each week, bands and artists gather around Boilen’s desk and perform intimate shows for small crowds, which are then cataloged through NPR.org. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been turned on to bold new artists, or enjoyed up close and personal gigs from established performers, via the Tiny Desk. Stellar concerts from BadBadNotGood, Rubblebucket, Lucinda Williams, the Donny McCaslin Quartet, Declan McKenna, Gucci Mane, Christian Scott and Trey Anastasio form only the tip of the iceberg. In an era when sales of recordings no longer make artists money, concert ticket prices are often astronomical, and radio is an at best fractured entity, the Tiny Desk has provided an avenue for artists of significant merit to reach listeners through live performance.
NPR also hosts an annual Tiny Desk Concert competition, offering independent artists an opportunity to perform as part of the series. Since 2015, Mohawk Place (47 East Mohawk St.) has been presenting a one-night mini-festival comprised of area entrants in the national contest.
In Buffalo, fans of the blues have long patronized WBFO 88.7 FM which, though it trimmed back its blues programming several years ago, still offers evening weekend slots to the form, with shows hosted by local blues-man Tommy Z. WBFO also carries Fresh Air, with host Terry Gross, which often focuses on the arts in general and music in particular. Parent television station WNED offers music programming too, particularly during pledge drives, and its FM radio station component follows a classical music format. It’s not possible to accurately predict what the Trump Team's proposed cuts would mean to all of this.
And the NEA? The organization has done immeasurable good for the arts scene on both the national and the local level. In its most recent round of grants alone, more than $150,000 was awarded to Buffalo cultural projects, among them Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Center, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, CEPA Gallery, Just Buffalo Literary Center, the Burchfield Penny Art Center, the UB Art Gallery, and White Pine Press. Past NEA grant recipients include Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Society, and UB’s Center for the Arts. Since 2000, millions of dollars have come to Buffalo from the NEA to fund performances and education initiatives.
Arguments for trimming the federal budget can make sense. But targeting the already ailing arts and cultural institutions specifically, to trim an amount so marginal that it wouldn’t even be visible on a federal budget pie chart? That sends a statement to artists and patrons of the arts.
Conservative think tanks and politicians have been urging the defunding of arts endowments for years. And, after helping staff the Trump transition team, one of the most powerful and conservative of the bunch - the Heritage Foundation - more than likely has the new president’s ear.
If you care about the arts, be prepared to yell louder than they do.