Giving thanks to the N.E.A. amid uncertain times

This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.

Despite the fact that the National Endowment for the Arts is sometimes a hot political topic (the President’s current budget proposal would eliminate the program entirely), the organization itself endeavors to remain outside politics and cultural feuds. In allowing the organizations it funds the freedom of expression, the Endowment often finds itself in contentious cultural conversations.

It’s an unpalatable truth: most arts organizations simply wouldn’t exist as purely capitalistic ventures. Like almost all regional opera companies, Opera Grand Rapids is no exception. Ticket sales, while vital, constitute only a portion of the funds necessary to hire singers and staff, maintain facilities, and produce season after season of shows in the grand operatic tradition.

Our opera’s existence relies on the generosity of our donors, ticket sales, volunteers, and funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. Just like many artists and opera houses, we love what we do, but we couldn’t do it without the support of a willing public. At a time of year traditionally reserved for gratitude, we are pausing to reflect on the support we’ve received from our city, our patrons, our donors, and the Endowment.

The NEA was founded in 1965 with a goal distinct from previous federal arts programs, according to Mark Bauerlein’s book, National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965-2008. Its purpose was not to create jobs like its New Deal predecessor programs. Its objectives were more aspirational. The Johnson administration’s vision of the program was taken directly from a quote by George Washington: “The arts and sciences are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life. They have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.”

Despite the fact that the Endowment is sometimes a hot political topic (the President’s current budget proposal would eliminate the program entirely), the organization itself endeavors to remain outside politics and cultural feuds. The arts arena is, of course, a difficult place to be impartial. Art, by its very nature, attracts controversy; the same passion that elicits standing ovations from some will inevitably prompt shaking fists from others.

In 1984, the English National Company staged a production of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera. The company, an NEA recipient, wanted to deliver a fresh take on a classic: their Rigoletto would take place in the world of the mafia, set in New York’s Little Italy. When a New York congressman named Mario Biaggi took exception to the new setting, he raised objections to NEA funding the opera, and a controversy about the program itself erupted overnight. Of course, it was never the intention of the NEA or the English National Company to disparage Italians by updating a classic Italian opera. But in allowing the organizations it funds the freedom of expression, the NEA often finds itself in contentious cultural conversations.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of recipients of NEA funds resemble Opera Grand Rapids—community and regional arts organizations that promote tourism, provide jobs, run education workshops, give residents volunteer opportunities, and increase the quality of life in their cities.

The average taxpayer contributes 46 cents to the NEA in a year. With this small personal investment, every citizen contributes to after school programs, rural art outreach, and performance companies like ours. 46 cents may sound trivial, but for companies like Opera Grand Rapids, it makes a huge impact.

Grand Rapids has benefited inestimably from the generosity of its entrepreneurs and federal funding alike: the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, the West Michigan Center for the Arts and Technology, Alexander Calder’s iconic La Grande Vitesse, and OGR all owe a debt of gratitude to both private donors and the National Endowment for the Arts. We’re truly humbled to be in such august company.

Rigoletto, October 2017

While we are thankful to have enjoyed decades of sponsorship from local philanthropists, donors, and volunteers, we are also keenly aware that single artists doing good for their community often don’t have these options. That doesn’t diminish the soul-elevating impact they can have on the lives of those around them. During this season of reflection, we want to take a moment to thank those lone artists who don’t share our good fortune, yet share their talent with the world anyway.

Most importantly, we want to thank our supporters. If you’re reading this, you’re a welcome part of our world, and we’re extraordinarily lucky to have you in it. Thank you for helping make Grand Rapids a city in which we are proud to live, work, and make music.



OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.



As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.