Union Actors and Musicians Fight Trump’s Attacks on the Arts

Bruce Vail

Trump’s defunding proposals aimed at the arts are not confined to the National Endowment for the Arts. They also extend to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (Actors' Equity)

If Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is seri­ous about cre­at­ing jobs in the nation’s heart­land then he needs to rethink his own pro­pos­al to elim­i­nate fed­er­al fund­ing for the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts (NEA), the agency that helps fund the not-for-prof­it groups behind thou­sands of the the­ater and music pro­duc­tions seen every year in mid­dle America.

That’s the analy­sis of lead­ers of the labor unions Actors’ Equi­ty and Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Musi­cians, two orga­ni­za­tions that could see employ­ment among their mem­bers crip­pled if the cuts in Trump’s so-called skin­ny bud­get” are enact­ed into law. The cur­rent NEA annu­al bud­get of $148 mil­lion is small but impor­tant, they say.

Mary McColl, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Actors’ Equi­ty, which rep­re­sents more than 50,000 stage actors and stage man­agers, says that most mem­bers work in non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions, out­side of the com­mer­cial enter­tain­ment cap­i­tals of New York and Los Ange­les. They don’t rely exclu­sive­ly on NEA fund­ing for their pay­checks, she says, but the NEA is crit­i­cal in the mix of pub­lic and pri­vate fund­ing that keeps live the­ater per­for­mances com­ing year after year in the country’s small­er cities.

The NEA is like a stamp of approval,” McColl explains.

NEA grants allow a typ­i­cal the­ater troupe to get match­ing funds from state or city gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions and phil­an­thropists, accord­ing to McColl. In this way, NEA funds act as seed mon­ey” that is cru­cial in sus­tain­ing the­ater groups in small cities where the local econ­o­my is too weak to pro­vide full support.

Small cities and towns will be hit the hard­est by Trump’s pro­posed defund­ing of the NEA, McColl says.

This is an unbe­liev­ably reck­less and irre­spon­si­ble idea from some­one who wrote The Art of the Deal. The pres­i­dent says he wants to cre­ate jobs — he can start by pro­tect­ing our nation’s invest­ment in mid­dle class art jobs,” she says.

The argu­ment in favor of NEA fund­ing as a sus­tain­er of jobs in mid­dle Amer­i­ca was sim­i­lar­ly artic­u­lat­ed last month in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., by Actors’ Equi­ty Pres­i­dent Kate Shin­dle, a for­mer Miss Amer­i­ca beau­ty queen and self-described Republican.

There is so much irrefutable evi­dence that the arts serve as an eco­nom­ic engine, even and espe­cial­ly in cities and towns whose fac­to­ries or indus­try jobs have dis­ap­peared. All togeth­er, the arts are a $700 bil­lion indus­try employ­ing direct­ly 4.7 mil­lion Amer­i­cans and mil­lions more indi­rect­ly,” she told a press con­fer­ence March 16

Shindle’s press con­fer­ence was unusu­al. The union is gen­er­al­ly qui­et” on polit­i­cal and social issues, McColl says, But we are far less qui­et (now) than we have ever been before … Our mem­bers are look­ing to us to step out,” in the face of this new attack.

Ray Hair, pres­i­dent of the 80,000-member Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Musi­cians (AFM), tells In These Times that the dam­age would be irrepara­ble,” if Trump’s pro­pos­als go through.

The mem­ber­ship of AFM mir­rors that of Actors’ Equi­ty in the sense that many work for non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions where NEA grants pro­vide the key­stone in a broad­er fund­ing mix. Hair says there are at least 200 sym­pho­ny orches­tras spread around the coun­try that would be seri­ous­ly endan­gered by defund­ing the NEA.

In addi­tion, union musi­cians per­form at the­ater pro­duc­tions and at local fes­ti­vals that are often the pre­mier arts events in small­er cities. These events are val­ued stim­u­lants to the local econ­o­my and help main­tain a source of steady employ­ment for pro­fes­sion­al musicians.

Hair also says his mem­bers are sim­i­lar to those of Actors’ Equi­ty in the sense that near­ly 100 per­cent of them have worked for non-prof­its linked to NEA fund­ing at some point in their careers.

Any pro­fes­sion­al musi­cian who has been in this busi­ness for a while will have per­formed in a venue that has been sup­port­ed by NEA,” he says. The NEA doesn’t sup­port their careers direct­ly, but, in a sense, it makes them possible.” 

It’s against the rules for NEA staff to lob­by for the agency’s own bud­get, agency spokes­woman Vic­to­ria Hut­ter tells In These Times, but NEA believes that its fund­ing is impor­tant in sup­port­ing local jobs. The agency has been work­ing close­ly with the Com­merce Department’s Bureau of Eco­nom­ic Analy­sis to com­pile data. The fig­ures com­piled thus far are not spe­cif­ic enough to pre­cise­ly esti­mate the jobs impact of with­draw­ing fund­ing from NEA, Hut­ter says, but clear­ly there would be an impact.

Trump’s defund­ing pro­pos­als aimed at the arts are not con­fined to the NEA. They also extend to the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties and the fed­er­al Cor­po­ra­tion for Pub­lic Broadcasting.

The Depart­ment for Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees, AFL-CIO (DPE) is coor­di­nat­ing a coali­tion of unions to fight the pro­pos­als for all three agen­cies. In a press release, DPE pres­i­dent Paul Almei­da stat­ed: Our unions’ mem­bers include actors, musi­cians, stage­hands, and many oth­er pro­fes­sion­al in diverse com­mu­ni­ties in all 50 states. Trump’s pro­posed cuts to the NEA, NEH, and CPB will hurt many of these hard-work­ing Amer­i­cans and we are unit­ed in our effort to ensure Con­gress pre­serve fed­er­al arts funding.”

The coali­tion includes 10 unions in addi­tion to Actors’ Equi­ty and AFM: Amer­i­can Guild of Musi­cal Artists, Amer­i­can Guild of Vari­ety Artists, Direc­tors Guild of Amer­i­ca, Guild of Ital­ian Amer­i­can Actors, Inter­na­tion­al Alliance of The­atri­cal Stage Employ­ees (IATSE), Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW), Office and Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (OPEIU), Screen Actors Guild-Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Tele­vi­sion and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), Stage Direc­tors and Chore­o­g­ra­phers Soci­ety and Writ­ers Guild of America.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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