The NEA is ‘Wasteful’ Spending? These Audiences Beg to Differ…

Financial Vice President's Report

Volume 117, No. 5May, 2017

Tom Olcott

Tom Olcott is the financial vice president of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union’s concert department

I found out recently that my very dear friend, Frank Donaruma, had scheduled a horn recital at the landmark Flushing Town Hall building. Many members know Frank. He has been a member since 1960 and has always been a strong advocate and real fighter for musicians’ rights. His performance resume is, to put it mildly, extensive. A half dozen major orchestras, a long career with the American Ballet Theatre and the Queens Symphony, Broadway shows, recordings…you name it. He has “been there, done that” in ways that few can rival.

That said, many of us know about recitals. We may have been forced to do one to get out of school. We might have ventured forth to make a splash, and some of us are so prominent that recitals are expected. If you schedule one independently of other requirements, you better love that spotlight and have some confident and terrific product to present. For most of us, though, if you announce a recital, the typical expectation is that your friends and family will show up (unless they have a good excuse – or at least a plausible excuse) and that everyone will be supportive – and a decent party will follow! On that general assumption, Frank and his family figured maybe 40 or 50 people would show up. And on that assumption, here is where a different story emerges.

The Flushing Town Hall is a historic, turn-of-the-century building at Northern Boulevard and Linden Place in Queens. It has been in existence for nearly 40 years, and has, over time, been beautifully refurbished. It is administered by the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts, whose mission is, in part, to “present multi-disciplinary global arts that engage and educate the global communities of Queens and New York City.” They also rent out the hall for private shows and recitals.

THE ARTS IN ACTION: When Local 802 member Frank Donaruma recently rented Flushing Town Hall for a recital, he expected maybe 40 or 50 people to attend. Instead, the staff had to bring in 100 more chairs to seat the crowd. Many audience members showed up because they saw the recital on the venue’s calendar and were curious. Flushing Town Hall, which is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, is just one example of how the NEA enriches our communities and brings creative arts to the people.

The Town Hall’s programming is fantastically diverse. It seeks to present both Western culture as well as world music, and serves a diverse community that includes Asian-Americans and Latinos, as well as the legacy populations that have defined Queens for decades. The Flushing Town Hall gets support from the New York State Council on the Arts, state legislators, the Queens representatives on the New York City Council, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, the Queens borough president – and many others. But the top-line contributor is – you guessed it – the National Endowment for the Arts. This is the same NEA that President Trump wants to defund and the same NEA that Trump and his allies characterize as “wasteful government spending”.

The NEA spreads its meager resources among many institutions nationally, large, small and in-between. Its resources are a tiny fraction of the U.S. budget, like 0.012 percent of the non-defense discretionary total. Every state has at least one organization that receives funding from the NEA. The NEA’s mission is to recognize strong efforts across the entire spectrum of national artistic endeavors and to assert that “Yes, indeed, this is our culture and we are obligated to preserve that heritage.” There is some historical support for this view from none other than Winston Churchill. In 1937, just prior to World War II, Churchill said:

The arts are essential to any complete national life. The state owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them. Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.

Earlier in this article, I echoed whatever common wisdom exists regarding recitals, and also noted that Frank and his family expected 40 or 50 attendees. As it turns out, the Flushing Town Hall had to install about a hundred more chairs. It seems that the Hall has a strong, interested and vital clientele that actually check out what is scheduled, and then show up – because they love and are intrigued by the arts and want that experience. The woman I sat next to was from Brooklyn and had taken the subway to Queens with her husband just to see and hear Frank’s recital. She told me she showed up because she “kind of thought she liked the French horn but wasn’t sure.” I should point out that this indoor recital took place on the first really nice day of spring – and the room was still packed.  This is one small instance of what the NEA is for and why every American should support it.

Oh, and by the way, Frank sounded great!