Arizona Humanities Halted Its Project Grants. Here's Why That Matters

An Arizona Humanities project grant is helping to fund The Scottsboro Boys panel discussions this month.EXPAND
An Arizona Humanities project grant is helping to fund The Scottsboro Boys panel discussions this month.
Phoenix Theatre

The Arizona Humanities Council announced on Thursday, March 30, that it is suspending its project grants temporarily until further notice.

That’s because most of Arizona Humanities’ funding comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities (or NEH, for short).

The NEH is funded by the federal government, but Congress has yet to approve its 2017 budget. And President Donald Trump is hoping to eliminate the NEH altogether.

Hence, the funding dilemma.

“Unfortunately, we cannot award funds that we have not, and potentially may not, receive,” wrote Brenda Thomson, executive director for Arizona Humanities, in the announcement.

A statewide 501(c)3 nonprofit organization started in 1973, Arizona Humanities is one of 56 NEH affiliates. Its programs promote understanding of the human experience, through partnerships with cultural, educational, and community groups throughout the Arizona.

“Funding from the NEH is crucial to our work,” Thomson says.

And the math backs it up.

The Veterans Heritage Project, past Arizona Humanities project grant recipient.
The Veterans Heritage Project, past Arizona Humanities project grant recipient.
Veterans Heritage Project

During fiscal year 2016, Arizona Humanities took in $894,044 in revenues, and had $892,338 in expenses. The NEH provided $760,860 of that revenue. That’s a sizable chunk of funding — about 85 percent of Arizona Humanities' overall revenue.

Some of those funds are used for awarding grants to Arizona organizations for projects that support Arizona Humanities’ goals. Past recipients have included museums, nonprofits doing cultural work, schools, libraries, and community groups. But they also go towards Arizona Humanities events around the state, and basics like staffing the organization.

Last fall, Arizona Humanities awarded 14 project grants. One supported Beth Ames Swartz's recent "Repairing the World" exhibition. Another is funding this month's panel discussions exploring race-related issues in the musical The Scottsboro Boys.

On March 7, Arizona Humanities announced seven new project grants, mostly to Tucson-based organizations – including Borderlands Theatre and the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center.

But now it’s holding off on issuing another call for grant proposals. Basically, Arizona Humanities just hit the pause button in terms of funding local creatives, until Congress approves NEH funding for the current fiscal year — or doesn't.

An Arizona Humanities project grant helped support the exhibition that included this work by Beth Ames Swartz.EXPAND
An Arizona Humanities project grant helped support the exhibition that included this work by Beth Ames Swartz.
Beth Ames Swartz

Of course, there’s an even larger issue on the horizon.

President Trump wants to eliminate the NEH.

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His blueprint budget for 2018, released on March 16, eliminates not only the NEH, but three additional cultural agencies: the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The blueprint is basically a precursor to a formal budget proposal, which will be released later this year.

If Congress defunds the NEH, it’s not just Arizona Humanities that would be affected in our state.

The NEH also gives funds directly to projects in various states. In March 2017, for example, it awarded grants to five Arizona organizations, including the Heard Museum – which received $250,000 to support a new “Tragedy and Triumph: The American Indian Boarding School Experience” exhibit scheduled to open in 2018.

And Arizona Humanities funding from the NEH helps make more than its project grants possible, Thomson says. It also supports robust programming in and beyond metro Phoenix, such as community conversations on timely social issues and author talks, to name a few.

Jaclyn Roessel got Arizona Humanities funding for her poetry workshop and light rail performance.
Jaclyn Roessel got Arizona Humanities funding for her poetry workshop and light rail performance.
Hannah Manuelito

This month, it’s celebrating National Poetry Month with a strong lineup that includes Sacred Journeys: A Mobile Poetry Workshop with Jaclyn Roessel, which include Roessel performing on the Valley Metro light rail. Recently, Roessel left the Heard Museum to focus on her Grownup Navajo project.

So, what can NEH and Arizona Humanities supporters do to support the cause – beyond participating in various projects and events?

“Call and write your legislators,” Thomson says. Let them know that you care about the humanities, and that you want them to approve NEH funding for the current fiscal year, plus pass a 2018 budget that sustains the NEH.

Then, stay tuned.

If the NEH loses federal funding, Arizona Humanities and other affiliates will need to rely even more on donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations, Thomson says.

Arizona Humanities most certainly would need to scale back the scope and reach of its work, but it won’t cease to exist.

“We aren’t going anywhere,” Thomson says.


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