TAMPA, Fla. — As the Republican National Convention finally got underway in the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Tuesday, a group of about 90 arts advocates gathered about six blocks away at an historic 1926 movie palace to hear Mike Huckabee and other GOP elected officials champion their cause.
The issue of government arts funding, one that has drawn the interest of many in Hollywood who see it as critical to nurturing creative talent, has taken on even greater importance this year because it is once again a target, not just from lawmakers anxious to trim the federal deficit, but from the GOP’s newly anointed nominee, Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan.
Americans for the Arts, which advocates for federal arts funding, gathered a panel at the Tampa Theater that included Huckabee, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert; Mesa, Arizona, Mayor Scott Smith; and former New York Yankee Bernie Williams, who also is a guitarist nominated for a Latin Grammy; along with others from the Tampa area.
They did not specifically mention Romney’s position, but they did speak of preserving arts funding in their own budgets at a time when schools, local and state governments are feeling the pinch.
Herbert, a Republican, even spoke of the priority that Brigham Young gave when he came to Utah.
“It is part of our heritage,” Herbert said. “A lot of people know about the Mormon pioneers going to the Salt Lake Valley. But a lot of people don’t realize that the first thing Brigham Young did when he came into the valley was not to build a church and not to build a temple, but he built a performing arts theater for singing and for dancing.”
Asked in an interview recently what federal programs he would cut, Romney cited the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He told Fortune that while he appreciated “what they do in many cases,” the endowments “have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, government does on their behalf.”
After the event at the Tampa Theater, which inside resembles a Spanish mission, Huckabee told Variety that he has not taken a position on Romney’s proposal.
“I would have to give some thought to it,” he said . “If it would make it stronger and make it more effective to get children involved in music and arts, I would entertain it. If it was a way to lessen that, I would be against it.”
“I understand where (Romney) is coming from,” Huckabee added. “I am not going to take issue because I don’t know how he has expressed it and how it would be applied.”
But Romney’s position has long been advocated by some conservative think tanks as essential for trimming the size and scope of government.
In the years since the NEA was established in 1965, federal funding for the arts has from time to time come under threat in Congress as a frivolous expense or one that can be supported via private contributions. The NEA was saved despite an effort by the newly elected Republican Congress to zero out funding in 1995, but its budget was eventually scaled back.
Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, has made a point of coming to the conventions of both parties to make their case that government investment stimulates private donations and has proven to be a potent boost to local economies. Yet it has been a challenge, and especially here, where the theme of government borrowing is underscored by two “debt clocks” in the convention arena.
“The position of eliminating support for the arts at the federal government level is not based in an understanding of how the system works,” he said. “We just need to work harder to get to the word out to elected leaders, Republican and Democrat, about the inherent and also the practical value of the arts.”
He added, “There is a misperception out there — Congressman Ryan was quoted related to this misperception — that the majority of arts support somehow comes from government. It is the tiniest fraction that has been involved with support. But it is understood to be a very important fraction because it leverages all of the rest.”
Tim Daly, president of the Creative Coalition, also has been promoting a similar message through his org to Republican elected officials and to delegates. The org has a series of events here and in Charlotte next week at the Democratic convention. On Thursday they are planning a benefit gala with a performance by Journey.
He called the idea of defunding the NEA “a grave error” and said that “what people don’t understand is that when the NEA funds anything, it is like the stamp of approval,” noting that it would spur private contributions.
“I am not surprised when politicians on either side of the aisle proposes cutting the NEA. It’s an easy target,” he said.
But he acknowledged that advocating support has meant “saying the same thing over and over again.”
When he talks to some lawmakers, he said, “You can almost see the thought bubble coming out of their head — oh, that’s fancy parties or the red carpet — and not what the NEA does which is to help the arts in small communities.”
In fact, there is still residual sting left over from the late 1980s and early 90s controversies over funding of individual artists in the funding of individual artists, something that it no longer does.
Huckabee made a point to say that he opposes federal funding for individual artists as a kind of censorship — “the government favoring one artist over the other.”
But he said it was still recognized support for community arts programs.
He said that the way to convince other Republicans is to appeal to their pragmatism, putting it in terms of economic development essential for community growth.
“They may get it from that standpoint. It may not be the touchy feely part,” he said, adding, “I think you can sell it in crass economic terms of, do you want to grow or do you want to die.”