The following essay by Sara Zia Ebrahimi is part of “Beyond Survival: Public Support for the Arts and Humanities,” a call for reflections on and provocation about the precarious state of arts funding after decades of neoliberal economics and the long culture wars.
It’s interesting when colleagues ask me how the shifts in state and federal funding of the arts affect our community of grantees and panelists because generally my answer is: they don’t affect us at all. The Leeway Foundation supports women and trans and gender nonconforming artists working at the intersection of art and social change. We believe that relationship-building is the basis of social change. Each year our staff sets up shop at a variety of community venues—from housing shelters to local coffee stores to comic book shops—and offers information sessions and application support. More than half of our grantees never received a grant before being supported by Leeway, speaking to the effectiveness of this intentional relationship-building. Most grantees also never saw themselves as “artists” before getting a grant, even if they were established cultural producers in their communities.
At Leeway, we ask artists to express their vision of social change in their grant applications. We are not interested in work that is only reactionary to the current tides, but rather artists who, as black feminist poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes, live their lives “as a tribute to our victory and not as a stifling reaction to the past.” That isn’t to say that people living and creating in the margins aren’t affected by government policies; they absolutely are. But the types of policies that affect them—access to health care, public school closures, increased militarization of the police—aren’t the ones affecting the arts. Unfortunately, funding streams like the NEA and NEH were not ones making their way into our communities. So, when people ask how they are affected by the current budget slashes in the ongoing culture wars I say: they are continuing to envision, survive, and thrive the ways they always have at the margins.
Sara Zia Ebrahimi is a filmmaker and educator with a focus on social change and community engagement through artistic endeavors. Sara currently works as the Program Director at the Leeway Foundation, which provides support to women and trans artists in the Philadelphia area.