Ka Hana Kapa is a modern-day story of kapa-making (barkcloth) in Hawaii. Seen through the eyes of a mother and daughter, the documentary traces the kapa-making process once used by ancient Hawaiians. The story comes full circle when the kapa is used to dress a hula halau (dance troop) for a performance at the 2011 Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, Hawaii.

Ka Hana Kapa and similar projects on hula and slack key guitar help protect and perpetuate traditions unique to Hawaii. Their ties to federal support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) are deep and multi-faceted.

With Ka Hana Kapa in particular, the project received federal funding via Hawaii’s state arts agency, the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. It was also managed by SFCA’s Folk Arts Coordinator, whose position is funded entirely by the NEA.  On a side note, the film was presented by the Public Broadcasting Service, another agency on the cusp of elimination.

Simply put, projects like Ka Hana Kapa and the knowledge they bear are what we risk losing should the NEA dissolve.

A Report From Our Nation’s Capital

“We are at war,” proclaimed author and political commentator Jonathan Allen when asked about the state of the arts under the Trump administration.

Needless to say, we all sat up and piped down.

Allen was one of numerous guests invited to speak to roughly 60 arts leaders, administrators and practitioners as part of the Western States Arts Federation’s Leadership and Advocacy Seminar in Washington, D.C.  This annual convening brings together representatives from 13 western states with the goal of educating leaders in the field about the structure and dynamics of federal arts funding.

For the second year in a row, I was invited to attend on behalf of Hawaii along with Karen Tiller Polivka, SFCA Commissioner and former executive director of the Hawaii Opera Theatre.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, conversations flared due to an article published in The Hill, which resurrected a proposal by the Heritage Foundation to eliminate the NEA.  The article singles out the arts and humanities as a “waste” and a formidable step toward budget reform.

Days after the story broke, our group arrived in D.C. to gather, listen, console and more importantly, to fight.

The Ebb And Flow Of Funding

Cuts to federal arts funding are not new.  Since the NEA’s inception in 1965, funding has oscillated from a peak of $175M in the early 1990s to a little more than half that in the late 1990s.  Since then, the NEA has been recovering modest gains year after year.

Today the NEA budget stands just shy of $148 million, representing 0.004 percent of the national budget.  Although just a drop in the bucket, $148 million stretches across the nation, reaching all 435 congressional districts in the country.

Tell Lawmakers What You Think

Funding supports the NEA’s strategic initiatives through direct grants to individuals, nonprofit and government agencies. The NEA administers programs such as Challenge America designed to provide art access to underserved populations, Creativity Connects an interdisciplinary effort to bridge non-art sectors and Creative Forces which offers art therapy for military populations.

Moreover, 40 percent of the NEA’s overall budget goes to state and regional art organizations such as the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, a partnership which allows agencies to administer and prioritize programs at the local level.

In each instance, artists and organizations have leveraged NEA funding on the community level through dollar-for-dollar matches. As a result, the economic ripple effect on local industries such as tourism, retail, food and transportation has proven to be ten-fold, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

Hawaii’s Piece Of The Pie

According to the SFCA’s 2015-2016 Annual Report, the agency received $669,400 from the NEA to fund positions and programs across the state (an additional $85,000 was awarded as direct grants to individual organizations).

SFCA’s Executive Director Jonathan Johnson noted that defunding the NEA would have immediate and crippling effects. The agency would lose three full-time federally funded jobs, all of which coordinate and fund statewide programming, and the budgets for community arts grants and the Artists in Schools Program would decrease by $50,000 and $20,000 respectively. In short, education and traditional arts would take the hardest hit.

With some semblance of optimism, Johnson also mentioned, “We would take it on the head pretty hard, but yes, we would survive.”

While the loss of federal funding would trigger an organizational and programmatic restructure, Johnson’s strategy would be to refocus on “maximizing existing resources,” referring to Hawaii’s Arts Special Fund, which generates revenue from a percentage of construction costs.  In addition, the SFCA may lean more on state appropriations to help fill the funding void.

Johnson noted that the potential short-term and long-term impacts are simply a reality that “we cannot ignore.”

Survival Tactics

The time spent in D.C. was eye-opening. In anticipation of a sea change, I observed arts leaders going into defense mode.  Rather than asking for an increase of the NEA budget as in past years, we were encouraged to protect what little we have.  But I also saw a group come together in purpose and solidarity and was reminded of the many conversations happening in D.C. and throughout the country.

Alas, we were reminded repeatedly that no one can confirm what exactly will be included in the Congressional budget, which is slated to come out in late spring.

So until then, what can we do?

We can show our support by contacting our member of Congress, who have traditionally been supportive of the arts. Just last week Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand sent a letter to President Trump expressing support for the NEA and NEH, signed by 24 U.S. senators, including Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono.

Tell them about Ka Hana Kapa and that a great nation needs the arts.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author