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NEA money flows toward some unexpected Utah arts organizations

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(Photo illustration by Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Once-beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts continues to sustain Utah arts organizations, but few know what federal-government budget disputes may hold.

By ben Fulton

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 16 2013 01:01AM
Updated Mar 22, 2013 11:42AM

Two years after Melanie R. Thon received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a creative writing fellowship, she wrote the federal agency a long love letter.

The University of Utah English professor said the NEA money, which allowed her time off her academic schedule for trips to Montana, was key to finishing her novel, The Voice of the River.

"I might have been able to describe a river without doing the research, but it was a gift to see, to be with this river, to be confident my details of the search were accurate," Thon wrote. "Your gift is expansive, and though the period of financial aid had ended, I will be reaping the benefits for many years to come."

Thon’s 2011 novel won San Francisco State University’s Gina Berriault Award and been published in excerpts across 19 literary journals. She also took her book on tour for five readings outside of Utah.

Total cost to the nation’s taxpayers: $25,000.

Budget-cutters in the nation’s Capitol would scoff. Arts fans would no doubt cheer. Either way, Thon’s grant is a drop in the stream of NEA grants to artists and art organizations nationwide. From 2008-2012 the NEA awarded Utah arts organizations and a select few individual grant recipients, a total of $7,121,500.

In 2012, the federal agency’s had a $146 million annual budget—taken from more than $3.5 trillion in spending requested by both the Obama administration and the Republican-controlled Congress that year. Utah’s portion amounted to $1.2 million.

Utah’s five-year record of NEA grants contains details that may surprise. The Sundance Institute, for one, along with the Institute’s Theatre Program come out big winners on a regular basis, including a 2013 grant of $75,000 for the Institute’s Children’s Theatre. Over the five-year period 2008-2012 the Sundance Institute received $705,000, according to the NEA’s online records. The Sundance Institute Theatre Program did well, too, receiving $235,000 over the same time period.

In fact, of all arts categories in Utah that received grants from the federal agency, none is more favored than "media arts" — an art form in which the Sundance Institute excels.

"We are grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts for their continued support of three core programs of Sundance Institute: the Feature Film Program, the Theatre Program and Film Forward," the Institute said through a statement issued by Elizabeth Latenser, manager of media relations for the Institute. "Among the Utah-based initiatives hosted by these programs are nearly a dozen labs offering creative support to artists."

Other top receivers include the University of Utah, which received $333,000 on behalf of several organizations and programs during those five years. Spy Hop Productions, Inc. and Bad Dog Rediscovers America, which instruct youth in media arts and visual arts, respectively, received $216,000 and $135,000 each over the same time period.

National battles • Utah acquits itself well compared to neighboring states in the agency’s "Western States Arts Federation," based in Denver. Compared to Utah’s $1.2 million allotment last year Colorado collected $1.3 million, as did New Mexico. Arizona took in $1.4 million, Idaho $936,700 and Nevada $786,700.

Some might say such copious thanks is due a federal agency that’s taken more than its share of battle scars since its 1965 founding. When not threatened with elimination outright, as it was during the so-called "culture wars" of the mid-1990s and again most recently with the rise of the Tea Party and 2006’s incoming Congress, the NEA has suffered cuts to funding. In 1996 the agency saw its annual budget cut by 40 percent. It’s never quite recovered.

The agency has seen favorable political climes of a sort, though. Thanks to the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the NEA showered arts organizations nationwide with $50 million in one-time assistance to the arts. Utah arts organizations received $426,000 of that, or less than 0.03 percent of all stimulus money the state received that year.

Victoria Hutter, assistant director of public affairs at the agency, said the recent sequester on government spending enabled by President Obama and Congress’ inability to negotiate a solution means NEA grants and administrative costs will both see cuts of 5 percent as a result. Beyond that, and also beyond the March 27 deadline for a continuing resolution on federal spending, no one knows what the future holds for federal spending on the arts.

"Many of us here are just as confused as everyone else," Hutter said.

Less confusing is the extensive process by which the agency reviews grant applicants, of which approximately half the NEA funds or, as it says, "supports." Hutter said the number of grants funded per state is not indicative of the vitality and diversity of its arts scene. It may well be indicative of its quality, however.

The agency awards grants based on two criteria, excellence and merit. The first is measured by the quality of a program and the history of the arts organization producing it. The second is based on project’s potential to achieve its goals and impact. Every application is reviewed by a panel of experts convened by the NEA, forwarded to the agency’s National Council on the Arts and, finally, the desk of the chairman for the last stamp of approval.

bfulton@sltrib.com

Twitter:@Artsalt

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