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L.A. without the NEA: Series looks at what a city loses if funding gets the ax

L.A. without the NEA. What does that look like? If the National Endowment for the Arts were to lose its funding, as has been proposed by President Trump, would many people notice?

Would you?

The Times is setting out to answer that question by looking at the NEA through the lens of one city and its environs, where the proposed cuts have the potential to affect gargantuan arts institutions and grass-roots programs alike. In the 2016 fiscal year alone, the NEA awarded 353 grants totaling $9.7 million to recipients in California, the agency said. That’s an average of less than $28,000 per grant, many going to relatively small organizations working on a local level.

Every day The Times will look at a different community group, how its NEA funds were spent, what artistic or public good did or didn’t result, and what the cultural landscape would look like if that program were to disappear.

When Trump’s budget proposal landed last week, one of our first calls went to Theatre of Hearts, which has received seed money from the NEA on and off since 2004. This year it was awarded $15,000 to support its Literacy Alive Mural Program, which will bring professional artists to the Central Juvenile Hall School near downtown L.A. to mentor students in creative writing and visual arts. One goal of the workshops is to create large-scale murals.

“These kids would never, ever have this opportunity otherwise,” said Theatre of Hearts Executive Director Sheila Scott-Wilkinson, adding that she feels the program benefits not only the youths but also the future neighborhoods that they will call home. “These youngsters are not throwaways. They’re going to return to their communities. They are not a lost cause.”

Theatre of Hearts secured a $15,000 matching grant to augment its NEA funding, raising the juvenile hall school project budget to $30,000. More than $18,000 of that total will go to artists working on the project; $4,780 will be used as partial payment of program staff salaries; $3,610 is the cost of art supplies; and $3,000 will help to cover the $5 million insurance policy the organization needs in order to work inside youth correctional facilities.

Scott-Wilkinson founded Theatre of Hearts in 1987 to serve at-risk and high-risk youth in underserved neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County. The idea is to divert kids’ attention away from the crime and violence around them and toward something positive.

The loss of NEA funding wouldn’t crush Theatre of Hearts, but it would affect operations substantially, Scott-Wilkinson said.

“We’re more likely to get funding from other entities if we get an NEA grant,” she said. “It carries a high profile and it leverages our funds, so this is devastating.”

The largest NEA grant Theatre of Hearts has received came in 2004, when the organization was awarded $38,000 for its artist-in-residence program. That placed master artists in alternative schools to stage artistic “interventions” for youths with learning challenges.

“We thought this was coming down, and now it has in the worst sense,” Scott-Wilkinson said. “We’re going to bring all our forces to bear to make clear that we do not want to let this happen.”

She added that the organization was looking at the ways it could advocate for change, including calling state, federal and local representatives and using social media. Said a recent Theatre of Hearts tweet: “To eliminate the @NEAarts would be to eliminate a part of the fabric of our community and humanity. #YouthFirst #SaveTheNEA #ArtsAdvocacy.”

Look for more “L.A. Without the NEA” stories here daily.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

Twitter: @jessicagelt

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UPDATES:

12:30 p.m.: This article was updated with a breakdown of how the Theatre of Hearts is spending grant money this year.

This article was originally published at 8:45 a.m.

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