Arsht Center CEO John Richard on Trump's NEA Cuts: "Smaller Communities Will Be Hurt First"

Arsht Center CEO and president John Richards.
Arsht Center CEO and president John Richards. Brett Hufziger
Playhouses, museums, performance halls, and other cultural centers have been abuzz with worry over the announcement that the Trump administration is considering slashing the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal agency that provides funding for projects and institutions in the arts nationwide. The disconcerting news is part of a promise of large cuts to federal programs that Trump is considering in order to “prioritize taxpayer funds,” according to the president's Office of Management and Budget. The administration could effectively end 52 years of federal assistance to arts programs nationwide.

That questionable course of action resonates in Miami, a city that came of age in no small part because of patrons of the arts. New Times discussed the news with John Richard, CEO and president of the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts, a popular downtown destination for performances of all stripes, from opera and flamenco to Broadway productions and beyond. The Arsht has seen the significance of arts funding firsthand, because the center generates thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in yearly revenue for the city. Richard says the Arsht seeks to program world-class arts experiences to attract audiences.

“Homegrown, world-class, and community-based – they're not exclusive categories,” he explains.

Putting on these shows wouldn't have been possible without the NEA, Richard insists. Though the Arsht is a large institution with private donors, matched grants from the NEA play an important role when it comes to enabling and accelerating projects that might not attract donors or commercial viability on their own.

“The NEA is the highest-ranking federal entity that supports the arts thoughtfully, creatively, and with attention paid to underserved communities,” Richard notes. Receiving a grant from the agency also lends authenticity and recognition. "It's become a signature institution of support nationwide.”

Losing the NEA would hurt these smaller programs more dramatically, Richard says, in Miami and other arts hubs across the nation. “Globally, smaller communities will be hurt first,” he states. “The recognition that funding the arts with taxpayer dollars is no longer important is a problematic message.”

Because NEA funds are required to be matched by recipients, the investment spurs development in communities that might have difficulty remaining commercially viable otherwise. It's less of a handout and more of a partnership and an understanding that each federal dollar is “leveraged tenfold to create small businesses,” Richard explains. Compound this with the fact that the annual NEA budget is $146 million, an estimated 0.02 percent of federal spending, and the decision to defund the NEA seems questionable.

Asked about the Trump administration's possible message or goal with the cuts, Richard says, “I scratch my head. I don't understand it, because it's an insignificant amount of money [relative to the federal budget]." Yet the NEA is so important to the communities it serves. He states that, if NEA funding were cut, smaller institutions would have to “find resources that may or may not exist, community by community.”

While many are content to thank Art Basel for attracting a global art community to Miami each year, Richard suggests we look deeper. He acknowledges that the festival has “encouraged us to think broadly and boldly about our programming 12 months out of the year,” but he doesn't see Basel as the be-all and end-all for arts in Miami.

“The horse has left the gates,” he says, regarding the year-round community that Miami has developed outside the window of Basel attention. “It's resonating here that art has become more of a centerpiece of the 'Miami brand.''" He argues that art and culture are main selling points for people considering moving to Miami, and the NEA has been a boon to the city's image as a center for the arts.

“It projects being contemporary, sophisticated, and also inclusive of the many populations that live here and come from around the world,” he says.
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David Bennett