Analyzing the NEA "Our Town" Grants

So yesterday, the NEA announced the recipients of the "Our Town" grants. As you may or may not know, the "Our Town" grants were created to support "creative placemaking projects that contribute toward the livability of communities and help transform them into lively, beautiful, and sustainable places with the arts at their core....A key to the success of creative placemaking involves the arts in partnership with a committed governmental leadership and the philanthropic sector. All Our Town applications must reflect a partnership that will provide leadership for the project. These partnerships must involve at least two organizations: one a nonprofit design or cultural organization, and one a government entity."

Given the name chosen by Rocco Landesman and the NEA staff, which references Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning play about fictional small town Grovers Corner, let's analyze the grants that were distributed in terms of geography and population. (Full disclosure: I was part of the applicant pool for the "Our Town" grant for a project in Bakersville, NC [pop 357], and was not funded.)


Let's start with which states received no funding at all -- the number in parenthesis next to the state's name is the number of the 156 "Access to Excellence" grants for theatre in the most recent round (for details, see my post here):

  • Alabama (0)
  • Delaware (0)
  • Georgia (4)
  • Indiana (1)
  • Kansas (1)
  • Kentucky (3)
  • Montana (2)
  • Nevada (0)
  • New Hampshire (0)
  • New Jersey (0)
  • New Mexico (2)
  • Oklahoma (1)
  • Oregon (2)
  • South Dakota (0)
  • Utah (0)
  • Virginia (2)

In summary, these 17 states which received no "Our Town" funding received only 11.5% of the "Access to Excellence" grants for theatre. Seven of them received no funding in either round.

Of the three states that received the most funding in the "Access to Excellence" theatre funding -- New York, California, and Illinois -- both New York and California exceeded the average and median grants for those states who received them, with California far outdistancing every other state, having received $900,000 (the next highest was Texas with $525,000 and Florida with $400,000); Illinois was near the bottom with $50,000.


According to Wikipedia, "16.7% of U.S. counties had more than 100,000 inhabitants."

  • Of the 50 grants funded by the NEA, 45 of them, or 90%, were in counties over 100,000. 
    • In fact, the average population of the counties funded was a bit more than 2.163 million people, and the median population was over 966,000. 
According to the US government, a rural county has a population under 50,000. How many of these grants went to rural counties?

  • Of the 50 grants funded by the NEA, only two (Marfa, TX and Sitka, AK) went to a county that could be classified as rural.
For those of you who are reading this and composing the usual questions, the NEA does not release a list of the applicants overall. As a participant, I know that the number of applicants were substantial and competition was stiff, but I cannot say how many small communities submitted applications. I would, however, say that an agency interested in diversity might have recruited applicants, and perhaps made an effort to account for this in making their awards. A 4% award rate for rural areas, and  10% rate for small communities once again reinforces the idea that the arts are an urban pasttime, and that people from the South (Alabama, Georgia) or the non-coastal West (Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah) should not expect support from the NEA.

So when funding for the NEA comes around once again, remember this distribution when you are condemning those Southern and Western representatives and senators who vote against.

Now let the rationalizing begin.


Great post, Scott. Thanks for doing the research legwork on this. Next steps?
As usual, disheartening numbers.

Stephen Spotswood did raise an interesting point on Twitter, though: why are we surprised by this, given that the NEA doesn't explicitly have in its charter a mandate to address these imbalances? (I think it should, but I believe in affirmative action.) Then again, I know that we aren't surprised, actually -- just disappointed.
Scott Walters said…
Gwydion -- Does the NEA have a specific mandate in its charter to address the dearth of African-American plays? Plays by women? The first word of the NEA is "national," which is mandate enough. If it was the Northeast Urban Arts Endowment, it would be different. But it's NATIONAL, and so should act like it.
Ian David Moss said…
A better way to look at this is to compare the dollars per capita given to urban versus rural counties. I was able to find a dump of the 2010 population figures for all counties: The 2,228 counties with populations of less than 50,000 account for 13.5% of the total US population. The 993 counties with populations of more than 50,000 account for the remaining 86.5%, or 270.2 million people.

Assuming you're correct that the only Our Town grants to counties with less than 50k people are the Sitka and Marfa grants, those grants combine for an investment of $350,000, or 0.8 cents per capita on the "rural" side of the ledger. By contrast, the other 49 grants total $6,225,000, or 2.3 cents per capita for the rest of the country.

It's a pretty big difference. On the other hand, the list looks better than I would have expected. It seems a bit strange not to characterize places like Ajo, AZ, Reedsburg, WI, and North Adams, MA as "rural," and a number of other cities on the list -- Fargo, San Angelo, and Charleston, WV among them -- are far from the usual suspects. So I do see this as incremental progress, even though I agree with you that the distribution has a ways to go before being equitable w/r/t rural areas.
Scott Walters said…
Thanks, Ian, for the additional perspective. While Fargo is not a "usual suspect," it isn't rural, it's just in a rural state. The 50,000 max for rural areas comes from the US, not from me. However, while people who live in metropolitan areas may think Fargo is rural, it has a metropolitan area of over 200,000. For the purposes of CRADLE, rural is under 20,000, but I didn't even both with that cut-off! So, is it an improvement? Yes. Is it satisfactory? No, and I think part of my job is to raise awareness of this issue and keep doing it until something changes.
Janet Kagan said…
Thank you for this compelling analysis. For the record, I wrote the successful Our Town grant application on behalf of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Project in Wilson NC (the only NC project to receive an award) and the current population of Wilson is 49,500, which is under the 50,000 cutoff for "rural."
Scott Walters said…
Hey, Janet! Congratulations on the grant. The data I used was Wikipedia, which uses the 2007 census. Wilson has a population of 50,652 and Wilson County, which is my usual touchstone, is over 100,000.

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