The Trouble Of Leveraging Funding, Accessing Arts Education | WAMC

The Trouble Of Leveraging Funding, Accessing Arts Education

Jul 3, 2017

The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has released what it calls a first-of-its-kind working paper on how to leverage funding to increase access to arts education in rural communities. 

MCLA art Professor Lisa Donovan says students attending schools in high poverty communities have less access, if any, to arts education – often rural areas.

In fact, Donovan says more than half of all schools in 15 states — including Massachusetts — are in rural communities. She says it’s difficult for them to establish a backbone organization to attract arts funding.

“Because the capacity for the administrative support is just not there,” Donovan says.

Donovan says it’s a better idea for many rural communities to collaborate, citing the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center as an example.

This month, MCLA and the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center are being judged on an ArtPlace America grant project to address storm water runoff around the Housatonic River, which has been selected as a finalist.

It’s called Be River SmART. Rebecca Waterhouse, a recent MCLA graduate who is working on the project, says it’s designed to get people interested in reducing pollutants using art-guided river walks and a film festival to inform the public near the river.

“So I think the strongest element of it is just how interdisciplinary it is and how we really are using the arts to engage the communities, which is something that a lot of areas are trying to learn how to do and see how they can use different areas of the community to do that,” Waterhouse says.

Donovan detailed these principals in a 2017 report funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

To get funding, Donovan says, communities need to make it about creating economic opportunity outside of the school system.

“And in rural areas, everyone knows everyone. So you already have really strong relationships,” Donovan says. “And one of the things we are focusing on here in the Berkshires is to really take what we learned from the research and apply it – and this project is a perfect example.”

For instance, working across sectors has helped MCLA and different area organizations attempt to solve complex issues the storm water runoff. It partnered with the Housatonic Valley Association to mesh art and science.

“And the arts really are a spectacular strategy to develop community, to heighten awareness about different issues, to engage people in conversation and making change,” Donovan says.

Donovan says there’s a lot of competition for funding – from federal, regional, state and local sources – and working together, it’s easier to attain it.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council gave a total of roughly $784,000 to Berkshire-based councils in 2017.

On a recent tour with National Endowment for the Arts Chairwoman Jane Chu in Pittsfield, Anita Walker, the council’s executive, said it’s worth it in the long run for the state to continue strong arts funding. Walker says Massachusetts is the only state with its own cultural council.

“Bit by bit, piece by piece: every time you take  one more step forward there is new energy. And I think that is what go …..towards sustainability,” Walker says. “No question, financial resources are critical.”

Statewide, art and culture support 62,000 jobs, and generate $2.1 billion annually – not including another $2.5 billion from community stores, restaurants and accommodations – according to MassCreative, which oversees the state cultural council.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council’s expected budget for next year is $16 million.

“But we are also looking at new funds to leverage,” Walker says.

Chairwoman Chu says it’s unclear what will happen if the White House drastically cuts NEA’s funding.

“There are rural initiatives, there are all kind of grants ranging from all kinds of sizes,” Chu says.

The NEA awarded roughly $532,000 to Berkshire County in 2016. Funding dropped to $400,000 in 2017.