Last fall, not long after the presidential election, Laurie Zierer spoke with Congressman Charlie Dent in his district office in Allentown.
Zierer, who is executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC), made the visit with Josh Berk, executive director of the Bethlehem Area Public Library, to present the case for strong federal funding for arts and humanities.
At that time Zierer told Dent that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) had brought $24.3 million to Pennsylvania over the last five years, and nearly $700,000 directly to his district.
“I asked him, ‘Can you imagine how much more compelling the story would be if we added federal funding for the arts, library, and museum sectors?’ And he said, ‘I think it’s time to have a meeting.’”
On June 19, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council convened that meeting: a conversation between Dent and regional humanities, arts, library, museum, and university leaders at ArtsQuest in Bethlehem. The event served to connect dots between various sectors within arts and humanities—and between federal funding and the impact of arts and humanities on local communities.
More than 70 people attended, including national and state leaders from NEH, National Humanities Alliance, Pennsylvania Department of Education/Office of Commonwealth Libraries, Pennsylvania Library Association, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and PA Museums.
In remarks at the top of the program, Margaret F. Plympton, deputy chairman of NEH, said, “Today’s event is an affirmation that the National Endowment for the Humanities, its sister agency the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and our state partners in the region matter and have had a positive impact on the Lehigh Valley, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and on the nation in general.”
Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed elimination of NEH, along with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). More recently a bill to continue to finance those agencies won approval from the House appropriations committee, whose membership includes Dent.
During the event in Bethlehem, Dent urged all present to continue contacting their members of Congress to urge them to support strong funding for the federal cultural agencies, and he emphasized repeatedly that Congress, not the President, “will ultimately control the purse strings on this stuff.”
In her presentation, Zierer revealed that $68.5 million dollars had come to Pennsylvania directly through NEH, NEA, and IMLS in the last five years, including more than $1.2 million in Dent’s district. To flesh out the larger economic impact of that investment, Randall Forte, Lehigh Valley Arts Council executive director, gave a preview of the just-released Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 report for the Lehigh Valley.
After Zierer’s and Forte’s presentations, moderator Tracey Matisak introduced audience members who described the impact of federal funding for arts and humanities in the region in three categories: Kassie Hilgert, president and CEO, Artsquest , spoke on economic impact; Berk and Jenna Lay, associate professor of English, Lehigh University, covered education; and Doug Roysdon, artistic director, Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre, spoke about how federal funding is crucial to providing access to arts and culture for all.
“Libraries across the state have been able to better serve our communities thorough NEH and IMLS funds and I'd like to highlight in particular the Teen Reading Lounge, which is one such program that was very successful in Bethlehem,” Berk said. “The Pennsylvania Humanities Council-funded Teen Reading Lounge program allowed us to attract teens who might otherwise not have come to the library and to offer them the type of valuable enrichment they might not be exposed to elsewhere.”
Congressman Dent took questions from the stage, and spoke with audience members over lunch after the formal event, consistently assuring all that their voices were being heard.
“Your work enriches our communities and our lives,” Dent said, according to a follow-up article in the Allentown Morning Call. “People in the arts will go into communities that are often distressed and turn them around. They’re not only helping culturally and artistically, but they are participating in a very important community development aspect.”