Senator urges citizens to press their Congressional representatives to preserve federal funding for the arts and humanities

CANANDAIGUA — A crowd Monday filled the Ontario County Historical Museum for the arrival of U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who chose the museum as a platform for her support of the arts and humanities.

President Donald Trump’s $1.15 trillion budget proposal cuts to zero funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. From a podium surrounded by local leaders before a crowd of librarians, elected officials, arts nonprofit supporters and others, Gillibrand said eliminating this funding would “particularly hurt communities and towns like those throughout the Finger Lakes.”

Not every school and not every parent, especially in rural areas, can give children “the chance to experience and learn about art, music, dance, language and literature,” said Gillibrand. These programs “level the playing field for communities,” she said, ensuing that children and all people of any community — regardless of income and other differences — can benefit.

The NEA and the NEH have an annual budget each of $148 million. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would eliminate that funding covering numerous agencies and programs including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS) and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, among others.

“We should never allow these programs to be cut, and I will continue to do everything in my power to stand up for communities that don’t have a lot of resources and rely on these programs,” Gillibrand said.

Nationally, NEA and NEH programs account for about 3 million jobs, “many of them right here in New York,” Gillibrand added.

Trump’s proposal is not a done deal, the senator noted. It will only pass with the support of both the House and Senate, so citizens need to make their opinion known to their representatives in Congress.

“All of us have to raise our voices,” Gillibrand said.

Ed Varno, executive director of the Ontario County Historical Museum — which hosted Gillibrand’s visit that ended with a museum tour — said the museum and its historical society rely on the funding to survive. The grants allow for research, exhibits and educational programs that preserve and promote the history of Ontario County — and that often have far-reaching influence.

Gillibrand, Varno and others who spoke did so before a backdrop of the museum’s current exhibit commemorating this year’s centennial celebration of women's suffrage. Varno mentioned the historic trial of Susan B. Anthony at the Ontario County Courthouse and the visit to Canandaigua by Carrie Chapman Catt, who succeeded Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Varno said a few years ago the museum dropped its admission fee, now having only a donation box. The decision came after a mother pushing a stroller entered the museum and couldn’t afford the $3 fee. The museum should be accessible to everyone, Varno said.

Jenny Goodemote, executive director of Wood Library, said the library — thanks to three consecutive NEA grants — was able to provide an educational series in the face of budget cuts. The Ready To Read program for pre-kindergartens “leveled the playing field” for children in the community, she said. In 2016, the program saw a 16 percent increase with 4,800 children. A summer reading program saw a 27 percent increase with 3,700 children.

Without the NEA funding, “I don’t know what we would have done,” Goodemote said.

David Hutchings spoke about the progress in preserving and restoring Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in Canandaigua thanks to the grant funding. Hutchings, Sonnenberg’s executive director, said the Victorian-era estate that attracts thousands of visitors to the region relies on this support to preserve the mansion and grounds and legacy of local philanthropist Mary Clark Thompson.

Judy Cermak, president of the Ontario County Arts Council, said losing the federal funds would mean jobs lost as well as a blow to quality of life.

“Political leaders set the tone,” said Cermak, addressing the senator. “It is our great hope that you change the tone of President Trump.”