Culture as a Human Right

Building Sustainable Approaches to Arts and Humanities Funding

Tracie D. Hall

This June, while facing a proposed 2018 budget just large enough to sunset the agency, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu began a keynote address at the 2017 Americans for the Arts conference with a simple but timely question, “What if access to the arts was a human right?”

The query floated in the air before it landed, hitting home for everyone in the room. Each of us had myriad local experiences that reinforced why arts advocacy — particularly advocating for equitable public access to the arts — seems so necessary and urgent at this moment. So many studies have revealed a decline in arts attendance in general and especially by individuals with lower educational attainment and income. Contributing to this decline is a decrease in funding for the smaller, neighborhood-based arts organizations that are most likely to be located in the communities where those with the most limited opportunities for consistent arts engagement live. How do we ensure that public access to the arts, like public education and public safety, is understood as a right and not a privilege?

“What happens if the arts are not funded?”

Chairman Chu’s question took me back to a small room of nearly thirty stakeholders — local artists, arts and nonprofit administrators, and funders — that the Joyce Foundation in collaboration with Illinois Humanities had convened in Chicago a few weeks before. For those of us gathered, the alarm over the imperiled budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) was exacerbated by Illinois’s two-year budget impasse, which has resulted in the state’s Arts Council relying on its almost $900,000 NEA grant to remain afloat this fiscal year.1 Many of us spoke about feeling an obligation to investigate a funding approach more befitting of the increasingly foundational role that arts and culture have come to play in the forming and reforming of physical and metaphysical communities.

The convening began with an address by Sharon Bush, a noted human services funder and currently managing director of Grand Victoria Foundation. She shared the various coordinated approaches that grantmakers supporting social services, health, and employment had fashioned to complement the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Detailing a suite of rapid-response funding, including emergency grant programs and microloans structured to ensure support for organizations serving the most vulnerable populations, Bush reflected on the opportunity inherent in this moment of arts funding limbo for developing pioneering frameworks, offering what has by now become a mantra in Chicago politics and planning: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Next, Steven Tepper, dean of Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, provided an overview of the state of national arts funding. He pointed to how its current economic positioning or lack thereof has led to chronically precarious funding for the arts. Tepper opened with a provocative prognosis, ”Across the arts we are operating from a position of powerlessness. Our proposition: ‘We have needs, and our singular preoccupation is to convince you (legislator, mayor, patron) that we are sufficiently valuable to merit your resources.’ This has been our advocacy stance. And there is ample evidence of this value — arts improve education, well-being, civic participation, economies.” But, he continued, “This framing is not moving the dial. And the evidence, while useful in some cases for hand-to-hand combat to win over some votes, has largely not changed policy or created a new reality for the arts in America.”

Stating the need for both a short- and long-term game, Tepper recommended a short-term approach beginning with the forging of alliances within and beyond the arts sector toward the ultimate creation of a network poised to rally around the intrinsic value of the arts as well as its centrality to neighborhood vibrancy, civic engagement, school persistence, personal health and well-being, crime reduction, environmental stewardship, and economic vitality. That short-term strategy should lead to a shift from what Tepper calls “a proposition of need to one of investment.”

For this group of Chicago stakeholders, Tepper’s most salient idea was his prescription for the long game: the adoption of a local “cultural bill of rights.” He called on Bill Ivey’s idea of protecting the right of Americans to an expressive life, which includes the right to fully explore America’s overarching collective experience as it is embodied in music, literature, theater, painting, and dance, and to engage in those unique artistic traditions that define us as families, communities, ethnicities, nationalities, and regions.2 Arguing that the agitation for the right to an expressive life might take a cue from the activism around access to natural resources, Tepper insisted, “People have to feel the same way about our cultural resources as they do about the Grand Canyon.” Ultimately, he asserted, we must increasingly position the public to face the question, What happens if the arts are not funded?

“The sky is both falling and not falling.”

When Americans for the Arts president Bob Lynch was recently asked whether he felt the sky in arts funding was still falling, he answered astutely, “The sky is both falling and not falling. The sky is obscured a little bit.” When the sky falls in some communities, it can suffocate everything beneath it. Trying to prevent it from falling, and preparing an emergency response strategy in the event it does are the chief responsibility of arts stewards and funders. If we fail to plan forward, and indeed to plan in a way that leads to new funding frameworks and stakeholdership, then we increasingly leave the possibility of meaningful arts participation to chance — and to those who can most afford to take chances.

Since I began work on this article, a plan to nearly restore the NEA and NEH budgets to about $145M each has gained bipartisan support. While this may cause some immediate relief, to see this as a victory for the arts and a crisis abated would be to underestimate the viewpoint that guided the proposed decrease and to miss the opportunity for dialogue. While there have been valiant efforts to preserve funding for arts and culture at the federal level, the reality is that federal arts budgets have experienced three decades of decline, including significant losses, such as the defunding of much of NEA’s awards to individual artists. Even if the proposed counter-budget passes, this is not a time to stand down; rather it is a time to organize.

I cannot help but think of an email received from a small arts organization located in and primarily serving the lowest-income neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. The organization had applied to the Joyce Foundation to expand its ability to provide music instruction, including the dissemination of instruments, to youth and adults who otherwise would not be able to afford lessons. The organization’s proposal evidenced its dedication to its mission and spoke of a history, like that of so many small arts organizations, of program administrators subsidizing programs with their personal finances in the usual but unheralded tradition of “making a way out of no way.” My work had been to listen to the organization’s leadership and help them find an approach that would use the grant to not just carry out the programs envisioned but to work toward a level of organizational capacity and sustainability that might ensure the organization was around for the long haul. The email from the founder upon news of approved funding contained only five words, “thank you for seeing me.”

The NEA, NEH, and IMLS have increasingly led the charge to build an approach to funding that ensures that small, neighborhood-level, culturally specific, and rural arts and culture organizations are indeed seen. In 2015 the NEA reported that 43 percent of its funding projects were in support of initiatives located in high-poverty neighborhoods. The NEH funds about 56,000 lectures, discussions, exhibitions, and other programs in urban and rural communities annually, supporting independent scholars and teachers and faculty at culturally specific schools and colleges, as well as underwriting programming for museums, libraries, and the media. With an emphasis on strengthening access to collections and growing a highly skilled and ethnically diverse next-generation leadership, IMLS uses its funding to support the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums, ensuring that the smallest and largest institutions can share resources and learn from each other. At what point can we say that the arts ecosystem is too big, too wide, and runs too deep to fail?

“Art gets there the fastest.”

In Chicago, the arts mean too much to fail. Literally. In Chicago’s increasingly affluent Forty-Seventh Ward, the Old Town School of Folk Music, a Joyce Foundation grantee, has long been the ward’s largest employer, boasting over 385 staff, 100 of them full-time. DuSable Museum of African American History, a cultural anchor for Chicago’s black community for almost sixty years, is — due to its neighbor the University of Chicago — far from holding that title, but with 41 full- and part-time employees, it both attracts and develops a critical number of arts professionals.

Despite being the subject of a national narrative about a crisis in public safety and a growing trend of depopulation, Chicago runs on culture. From house music to footwork, from Earth, Wind & Fire to Wilco to Chance the Rapper, from the urban blues to free jazz, from the National Museum of Mexican Art to the Art Institute of Chicago, from Steppenwolf Theatre to Teatro Vista, the arts form a visible but somehow still invisible infrastructure that holds the city together through the best and worst times.

When asked why a community development organization in a largely Latino community in southwest Chicago had gravitated to an arts-centered program curriculum to attract the unattached youth and young adults it primarily aims to reach, the executive director, himself a native of the neighborhood he now serves, answered matter-of-factly, “We try a lot of things. But art gets there the fastest.”

Those of us who gathered at that first meeting of stakeholders in May, and who have committed to working together on a draft approach to sustainable funding at the local level, see access to the arts as critical to the future of this city. Culture is for many what has kept the city viable. From our discussion of the strategies that should inform a short- and long-term approach, the following priorities emerged:

  • Inventory the local arts ecosystem to determine which institutions, communities, and audiences are most likely to be hurt by significant changes in federal or statewide funding.
  • Develop a communications strategy to message the value of arts and culture and its impact on individuals and local economies.
  • Create a tool that can quantify the multiplier effect of investment in the arts at the neighborhood level.
  • Build a model for advocacy that builds upon the junctures between the arts and housing, employment, education, and other sectors.
  • Investigate new and different approaches to public-private funding for the arts.
  • Test the viability of a local “cultural bill of rights” that connects and converges the interests of stakeholders across race, ethnicity, language, education, income, geographies, and proximity to the arts.

We will continue to meet over the next few months to hone and develop a coordinated strategy.

“Nothing burned on that block…because of the Towers.”

Two years ago, in Los Angeles for the Grantmakers in the Arts 2015 Conference and staying in the house where I grew up, I walked with my nephew to the Watts Towers, a few blocks away. It is a ritual for me. Long before they were protected by formidable fences and instructive signs, the towers were a magical playground for those of us born not long after the Watts riots. I remember my grandmother telling me that during those days of chaos and fire the community had decided that the towers would be protected. “That’s why nothing burned on that block,” she had told me. “It was because of the Towers.”

On this visit I took notice of a timeline now inscribed on a footpath that circles the sculptures. It identified significant moments in the evolution of the community beginning with the prehistoric age, the indigenous peoples who once occupied the land, the various contemporary migrations that led to the settling of residents like the towers’ builder Simon Rodia, their contributions, the riots of course, and then just after that, the Watts Writers Workshop.

The Watts Writers Workshop, formed in the wake of the riots in 1965, remained active through 1973, giving rise to such artists as actor Yaphet Kotto and poets Wanda Coleman and Quincy Troupe, among others. In channeling the outrage that preceded and followed the riot into creative expression and providing a platform for new and emergent voices, the Workshop attracted the attention of James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Abbey Lincoln, Ira Gershwin, and Senator Robert Kennedy as well as support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the NEA, whose initial grant of $25,000 allowed the group to obtain a formal meeting space for its writing programs and living space for some of its members. A second grant of the same amount served to extend the reach of its programming. The Workshop ended prematurely due to an arson attack on its office, which had grown to include a 350-seat theater.3

It wasn’t lost on me that day that the history of a community whose name is synonymous with civil unrest would identify art with both its defining and redeeming moment.

It isn’t lost on me now that so much about the future of support for the arts in this country rests on our ability as arts stakeholders to seize this moment to raise a new conversation about the arts as a critical element of federal and regional infrastructure. After working for twenty years across several fields to identify the levers that could help communities lift themselves to their highest vision, I am fortunate to be at the Joyce Foundation at a time when the arts stand at the intersection of many social issues, bridging dissonant voices, creating spaces for dialogue, and, importantly, creating innovative prototypes for problem solving. The Joyce Foundation, like many colleagues and peer institutions who have committed to joining this work in whatever form it eventually takes, understands that a threat to arts and culture funding is a threat to the future ability of our region to attract and retain the next generation of community stewards.

If access to arts and culture is indeed a human right, we must challenge and reposition the state of arts funding from one of dependence on outmoded budget approaches that see the arts as merely decorative, to one that fully supports art’s capacity to serve as witness to our communities — and perhaps as the glue that holds them together.


  1. Howard Reich, “‘Let’s Abolish Culture’: What Cutting NEA, Other Agencies Would Do to the Arts in Chicago,” March 16, 2017, Chicago Tribune,
  2. See “A New Conversation about Culture: Bill Ivey’s Big Ideas for the Arts,” GIA Reader 20, no. 1 (Spring 2009);
  3. See National Endowment for the Arts, “Writing Out of the Ashes: The Watts Writers’ Workshop,”