Small grants boost U.S. artists and students

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) hopes to weave a tapestry of creativity throughout the U.S. by giving $84 million in grants to diverse cultural organizations.

Among the 1,144 awardees announced in June are a virtual museum featuring American musical roots in El Cerrito, California; voice lessons for young performers in Virginia; a Topeka, Kansas, festival honoring the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote; riverside public art installations in Des Moines, Iowa; and a festival honoring the artistic contributions of Latinos in Orange County, California.

The grants were decided in March, as the nation was becoming roiled by the coronavirus pandemic. NEA worked with the organizations to retool programs as virtual in some cases and to postpone programs until after a period of social distancing in other cases.

Arts can help heal the nation, said Mary Anne Carter, chairman of the NEA, which is an independent federal agency. “These awards demonstrate the continued creativity and excellence of arts projects across America and the nimbleness of arts organizations in the face of a national crisis that shuttered their doors for months,” she said.

Hand writing in notebook with a pencil (© Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images)
A student writes a story at The Telling Room in Portland, Maine. (© Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images)

The awards are separate from $75 million in other grants that will be announced June 30 as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Mary McNamara Bernsten, director of the Rockford Area Arts Council in Illinois, said the new coronavirus has forced a revamping of its program. Usually, the NEA money ($25,000 this year) pays for a fine-arts immersion experience for 250 children who learn from close contact with local professional artists. This year, social distancing measures will limit the number of students but will allow small groups.

Rockford students will help a mosaic artist work on a sculpture to honor the centennial of women voting, make a mural for a conservatory with bare space where in other years flowers grew, and create a mural on a local street.

The program gives at-risk children opportunities that their wealthier peers often get through expensive tutoring or summer camps. “For these kids it’s a life-changing opportunity,” Bernsten said.

The largest two NEA grants will go to the Academy of American Poets, which will receive $75,000 to promote poetry, and the National Book Foundation, which will receive $70,000 for literary readings, discussions and student book clubs.

Local arts agencies say their smaller grants are no less important. The NEA’s stamp of approval helps with raising money elsewhere. (U.S. arts organizations rely mostly on corporate, philanthropic and individual donations.)

The recognition “expands the audience for the young writers we work with … beyond Maine,” according to Celine Kuhn, director of The Telling Room, an organization that teaches writing to refugee and immigrant children there. The students learn that “their stories are worth telling,” she said, which helps them thrive generally. Ninety-eight percent of program alumni go to college.

Woman speaking to students in a bookstore (©Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images)
In November, Emily Russo, a bookstore owner, tells students from The Telling Room about the publishing business. (© Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images)

The Telling Room was awarded $15,000 by NEA for its Young Writers and Leaders program, which puts together a book and a performance each year by secondary school students. (This year’s presentation will be online.)

The Richard Hugo House in Seattle will receive $35,000 for its writing programs, which include classes for students as well as for the homeless and those in recovery from addiction. The writing center offers 300 classes a year in creative writing, along with events such as poetry readings and a “Stage Fright” open mic event for students to read their own work.

Hugo, the namesake, was a poet who grew up in bleak circumstances in Seattle. “You never know where the next great writer is going to come from,” said Hugo House director Tree Swenson. “We are committed to ensuring people who would never be admitted to a university writing program have help.”