ANDREWS, Ind. — Viki Graber’s sneakers slosh in the wet grass as she twists two willow branches to form an arch. This 30-foot-long tunnel, an installation and playful passageway being built in Salamonie State Park, is the National Endowment for the Arts at work in Mike Pence country. And it’s anything but an easy gig for Graber, 53, a basket weaver. She sleeps in an unheated cabin nearby — home is 90 minutes north — as she creates her work. For this, she will get $3,000.
Two hours south, in Indianapolis, NEA money is helping Big Car revive a neighborhood. The nonprofit group is converting 10 bungalows and a shuttered church — all abandoned in recent years — into artist housing. With the help of a $10,000 NEA grant, Big Car has curated a sound exhibition that’s installed in almost a dozen spaces, including a library, bookstore and botanical garden. Once blighted and barely alive, Cruft Street now thumps with activity.
Then there’s James Gladin, a machine operator lying in a hospital bed at Parkview Health in Fort Wayne. Gladin, a 53-year-old with heart issues, collapsed at work the day before. On Friday morning, artist Diane Gaby rolls up to Room 4230 with her art cart. She’s making the rounds for the hospital’s Healing Arts program. That form of therapy has been a passion for Karen Pence, the state’s former first lady and herself a painter. Now in Washington, she remains publicly silent as her husband serves an administration proposing that the NEA be eliminated.
“I doodle,” Gladin tells Gaby. “That’s about it.”
“Well, do a little doodle for me and I’ll show you what this pencil can do,” she says. “I’m not expecting the Mona Lisa.”
“You’re not getting that,” says Gladin, who manages a thin smile.
This comes at a time when the NEA, which has been threatened many times over the 52 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law, is under attack. President Trump has proposed eliminating the agency altogether. In Indiana, artists and nonprofit leaders in small towns or underserved communities fear that lawmakers don’t understand how much they depend on the millions of arts dollars distributed each year outside booming metropolises. NEA dollars give children access to the arts at a time when schools are cutting back. They provide performances for people who don’t live in cultural centers. They keep such handmade traditions as basket-weaving and quiltmaking alive. Nowhere is this more evident than in Indiana, where a 500-mile, 36-hour tour through the state reveals what’s really at stake.
“We’re going into communities where there is so little access to the arts,” says Jon Kay, the director of Traditional Arts Indiana, which helped coordinate the NEA funding of Graber’s project. “If we lose NEA support, these traditions will be gone.”
The NEA’s budget is modest but designed to reach out to people outside big cities. The agency gives nearly $50 million of its $150 million annual budget to state arts councils so they can, in turn, distribute money to local programs and artists. Those contributions come with a built-in multiplier, as the NEA requires arts councils to match the federal government’s contributions. In addition, in fiscal 2015, the NEA awarded more than 300 grants totaling $7.7 million for projects in rural areas.
Take Brown County, about an hour south of Indianapolis and one of the least-populated in Indiana. The T.C. Steele State Historic Site, in the town of Nashville, has an artist-in-residence program, which features a performance and a lecture. Over the next few months, the artists will include a puppeteer and a puzzle maker. They receive a $300 honorarium and a chance to stay in the site’s “casita,” a tiny cabin with electricity but no running water. The Brown County Community Foundation, which allocates public art money, gives out about $114,000 in grants each year, with an average grant of $3,744. The county’s money comes from the Indiana Arts Commission, which, in fiscal 2016, received $776,000, or 19 percent of its budget, from the NEA.
“It’s not a lot of money, but it keeps artists producing and keeps artists involved in their communities,” says Larry Pejeau , the foundation’s chief executive.
Over the past decade, the NEA’s budget has remained relatively flat after peaking in the early ’90s. And NEA leadership, bruised by the culture wars of the 1990s that led to cuts under then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), has moved away from making direct grants to artists who could be perceived as controversial. The NEA typically passes the money through state arts commissions and other local agencies.
Still, that hasn’t stopped conservative critics of the NEA from praising Trump’s budget proposal. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, for example, said the agency offers “welfare for rich, liberal elites. That’s who consumes the products that they produce.”
That’s not true, according to budget figures and the nonprofit leaders in Pence’s home state. The data show that what’s at stake are not cutting-edge, big-city provocateurs, but traditional artists who focus on such decidedly noncommercial traditions as crafts and mountain music.
Indiana artist Jim Cooper, for example, received NEA money in 2003 to teach people to make handmade hoop nets used for fishing. Before Cooper died in 2004, he trained an apprentice. Now Daniel Cain makes the nets. That’s also the case with Viki Graber, whose father, LeRoy Graber, taught her to weave baskets. In 2009, just shy of his 90th birthday, LeRoy Graber received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. He died in 2014.
“Now Viki has taken that from her father, and she has blossomed into this artist working within the Mennonite community in Goshen but has also become an ambassador,” says Kay, of Traditional Arts Indiana.
The NEA does pay for specific projects through individual grants, but its contributions are often coordinated with other funding.
The Sisters of the Cloth, a group of African American quilters near Fort Wayne in northeastern Indiana, were discovered by Traditional Arts Indiana through a survey paid for by an NEA grant. The NEA later paid to bring four members of the guild to Washington in 2012 for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual event on the Mall meant to celebrate cultural traditions.
Maxine Stovall was one of those guild members. She works as a veterinarian by day, staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning to work on her quilts. About 11:30 p.m. on a recent weeknight, Stovall spread out a special quilt on a billiard table in the basement of her home in Roanoke, Ind. It features squares signed by people at the Folklife Festival four years ago.
“It was incredible,” Stovall says. “Just the electricity of being around the number of people that all had a common interest in art and culture and sharing their talents.”
Stovall won’t stop quilting if the NEA money is cut.
“But we would lose the ability to share that art,” she says. “We won’t know the impact until it’s gone and we’re wondering why can’t we exhibit or why can’t we attend any of these other events.”
That’s also true in Indianapolis, says Jim Walker, the chief executive of Big Car, the art collective interested in more than organizing exhibitions.
In 2015, Big Car was part of a group that received a $200,000 NEA “Our Town” grant — the largest possible through the program — to help reshape Monument Circle, which sits in the center of downtown Indianapolis, into a space where people can sit, eat and take part in a range of activities.
On a recent Friday night, Walker showed off the nonprofit’s work in another part of town — Garfield Park, a good 15-minute drive from Monument Circle. At the Tube Factory, a 12,000-square-foot space that was, until recently, an empty industrial building, they were offering drinks and sandwiches. And down the street, artist and musician Sean Smith, known as Oreo Jones, was running the bar inside another storefront purchased by Big Car.
Until last year, Smith, 30, was waiting tables to make ends meet. The NEA provided $10,000 to pay for a portion of the budget of “Listen Hear,” a sound project Smith curated, and Walker raised an additional $83,000 from private donors and foundations to pay for the remainder of the program. “Listen Here” takes place in multiple spaces and includes a hangout where visitors can listen to records, have a coffee or beer, and will eventually include a low-powered FM radio station.
“Saying you’re supported by the NEA is like the highest stamp of approval,” Walker says. “Everyone knows that it’s a process to get that money. They have review committees that are top of the line. So even if the NEA isn’t funding the whole thing, it’s giving you a lot of leverage and cachet.”
The NEA contributions aren’t always obvious.
At Parkview Health in Fort Wayne, the Healing Arts program is funded through the hospital’s foundation. But the Fort Wayne Dance Collective, a partner with the hospital, recently received a $63,000 NEA grant to help train artists for Parkview Healing Arts.
The program inspires a range of emotions. Therapists, who are trained in dance, poetry and visual arts, knock on doors to find receptive patients. Some reject them. Some say they would prefer not to participate but let the art therapists drop off supplies or play them a song. And some, like Gladin, draw a bit and are grateful for the pens and paper left behind.
It’s not just the patients at Parkview who are served. The hospital also considers “compassion fatigue,” the stress nurses feel from often intense workloads.
On a recent Friday morning, Diane Gaby brought a small, rectangular canvas to Angela Boylan, 31, a nurse for more than a decade. The canvas itself was anything but sophisticated. Nurses had traced their hands on the surface, sort of like a grade-school project. Boylan used a brush to paint the area inside the lines of her hand green.
As she painted, Boylan was asked what she felt about the process. She immediately burst into tears. That seemed to catch the handful of staffers around her off guard. “We don’t do it for the paycheck,” she said. “We do this because we love what we do.”
“Are you crying?” another nurse said in an incredulous tone from across the room.
Boylan wiped away tears and hugged Gaby. She hadn’t expected to get emotional. Then she picked up her brush again and continued painting.