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Funding cuts to the arts would hurt local economies, Foster told

Apr 18, 2017
In The News

President Donald Trump's proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts would not only be felt by local theaters, arts organizations and museums, but by local businesses and community members, U.S. Rep. Bill Foster and local art leaders said.

Foster, D-Naperville, hosted a discussion at Aurora's Paramount Theatre Tuesday to examine how a reduction in arts funding would affect local communities. Representatives from such groups as Naper Settlement and North Central College in Naperville, the Paramount and the Fox Valley Music Foundation participated.

Phones in his Washington, D.C., office have been "ringing off the hook" in response to the many federal budget cuts proposed, including arts grants, Foster said.

"The National Endowment for the Arts distributes money to all 50 states and they try to do their best to distribute to rural and suburban areas," Foster said. "It's one of the great things about the program. It raises the awareness of culture throughout the population."

Arts grants don't just help fund projects and raise awareness, they also provide leverage when an organization is seeking donations and other grants because they carry a certain amount of prestige, said Rena Calabrese, president and CEO of Naper Settlement.

"When a corporation is looking at donating, they're looking at who's getting grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities," Calabrese said. "They know that those projects go through a rigorous approval process and are vetted."

There's a misconception that museums and arts organizations get all of their money on a silver platter from the federal government, Calabrese said. "It isn't the only source of funding. All of us look for funding in a lot of other places," including donors and sponsors, she said.

And when cuts are made to arts, humanities and museum funding, it's the residents who pay the price, she said.

"People often think when they cut funding, they're taking the money away from the museums, but they're taking it away from the community," Calabrese said.

While Naperville's North Central College doesn't have any programs currently being funded by NEA grants, it has been able to bring several ballet programs to the school thanks to federal funding, said Brian Lynch, director of NCC's fine arts program.

Such art events have secondary benefit of helping a community's economy, arts leaders agreed.

"Where else can you get 1,800 people in one space and then they all leave hungry, ready to visit local restaurants," Lynch said. Cutting federal funding for the arts is "like cutting off a leg," Lynch said. "It's sabotaging a piece of the economic engine."

Foster agreed.

"If you look at the economic return on investment, for every dollar you spend on things like productions at the Paramount Theatre, you get about $7 of economic activity back in your community," Foster said. "It makes our country wealthier, not only culturally, but economically."

It is encouraging to know people are concerned about arts funding and that Foster is interested in hearing from local arts leaders, said Katie Arko, Paramount's vice president of development.

It can be difficult for theaters outside of Chicago to raise money, Arko said.

"But the National Endowment for the Arts doesn't care that we're a little outside of Chicago," she said. "They care about the work we're doing. It's allowed us to bring additional funding in for new programs."

"Selling music outside of Chicago is equally as difficult," said Steve Warrenfeltz, executive director of the Fox Valley Music Foundation.

The foundation was founded in 2014, and shortly after received a small grant to help preserve and promote blues recordings done in Aurora's Leland Tower during the 1930s. The foundation is restoring sound quality in addition to preserving the work, Warrenfeltz said.

The Paramount recently received a "modest" grant for a new musical, which allowed them to hire someone to work on the show's program, President and CEO Tim Rater said.

Blues on the Fox, held annually at RiverEdge Park in Aurora, is also partially funded by grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Foster encouraged residents to contact their elected representatives about arts funding.

"People come to the Paramount Theatre from six congressional districts, and every one of them should be contacting their representative saying when that appropriations letter from the NEA comes up, sign onto it," Foster said. "We do pay attention to constituents contacting us."