Saving Youth Arts Programs

Some of the 2017 NAHYP Award Recipients, from the top, Confident Voices, Destiny Arts Youth Performance Co., and Phoenix Conservatory of Music’s College Preparatory Program. Photo source:

In August of last year, I wrote a blog about the National Arts and Humanities Youth Programs Awards, the nation’s highest award for after-school and in-school arts and humanities programs. The program was celebrating 20 years of providing funding and recognition to the nation’s best programs, primarily in underserved urban and rural communities. These programs provided youth with a broad array of opportunities—ranging from self-discovery and learning new forms of expression to fostering self-confidence and providing them with a safe haven to grow. The NAHYP Awards also provided a national platform to further showcase the constructive value of the arts and humanities, shining a light on our youths’ dire need for these outlets.

As you will read below in the letter that I am sharing from the program’s executive director Traci Slater Rigaud, at the end of December 2017, the NAHYP Awards had to shutter its doors when the current administration dissolved the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, one of the youth program’s parent organizations.

Dear Colleagues: 

 Launched as the “Coming Up Taller Awards” in 1998, the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards have become known as the country’s highest honor for out-of-school-time arts and humanities programs that reach young people with tremendous potential, but limited resources. Over the past 19 years, the award has been presented to 256 outstanding programs in the United States and to 29 organizations internationally, along with a total of $2,850,000 in support. Additionally, 707 Finalists have received a Certificate of Excellence. Beyond serving as a standard-bearer for the field of out-of-school-time arts and humanities programs, the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards participated as one of the founders of the Creative Youth Development National Partnership. At the core of these endeavors has been the belief that by shining a light on excellence, we create awareness of and support for the work of the award winners, while showcasing national models and best practices to enhance and build the field at large.

 The awards and the effort to advance this unique community of practice would not have been possible without the leadership and support of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This collective recognition on behalf of the federal cultural sector has made a highly visible and powerful statement about the value of Creative Youth Development programs, both nationally and internationally. 

 Given the recent closing of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, we find ourselves at the end of the chapter for this program. Alas, as with the saying “All good things must come to an end,” the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards will officially close on December 31, 2017.

 On behalf of the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards, we wish to thank our federal and cooperative partners, our corporate and private funders, and affiliate organizations that have supported the program over the years. Most important, we want to express our deep gratitude to the teaching artists, educators, administrators, community stakeholders, parents, and youth, who, together, compose the fabric of the field. Your critical work makes a tangible difference in the lives of young people, and the legacy of your success will reverberate for generations to come.

Traci Slater-Rigaud
National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards

For close to 15 years, I was able to work behind the scenes to support the finalists in their preparation for the NAHYP Awards. At that time, there was modest support from U.S. government’s cultural agencies towards acknowledging excellence in arts programming for youth. Today, there are hundreds of case studies demonstrating how the arts transformed the lives of young people throughout America—youth of all different classes, races and ethnicities were empowered by this initiative.

So, what happens now? I learned that youth-focused arts programs will have to compete for funding at the state level, through local state arts agencies, that also provide funding for larger arts organizations, including museums and orchestras. The Fiscal Year 2018 Appropriations preview, which you can find here on the website of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, has already determined that “general fund spending (for the arts) is projected to grow only one-percent in FY 2018, which is the smallest projected growth rate since 2010, when states were experiencing the Great Recession.” Furthermore, the legislative preview notes that “….states will continue to remain cautious due to federal funding uncertainty and slow economic growth overall.”

The annual budget for each state’s arts agency varies widely—more than $40-million for New York; $188,000 for Kansas, and $19,000 for Montana. Yet, there is no disputing the importance of the arts, as outlined on NASAA’s website:

“America’s communities need the arts. The arts foster vibrant communities and create productive places for people to live, work, play and raise their families.
“America’s economy needs the arts. The arts put people to work, produce tax revenue, stimulate business and retain a talented work force.
“America’s children need the arts. The arts ignite young imaginations and boost achievement in academic fundamentals.
“America’s democracy needs the arts. The arts support a strong democracy, engaging us in civic discourse and bridging divides among us.
“America’s spirit needs the arts. Intrinsic to the arts is the power to connect us, uplift us and help us perceive things in new ways.
“America’s well-being needs the arts. The arts foster physical, mental and emotional health.
“America’s heritage is embodied in the arts. The arts preserve our legacies and our roots, passing along our nation’s unique character and traditions to future generations.”

This list sharply contradicts public positions the White House has taken on the value of the arts and on important social issues. Even more disconcerting is the fact that the most-needed programs will be in greatest jeopardy. I’m sure that’s why I’ve continued to think a great deal about the last sentence of Traci’s letter: “Your critical work makes a tangible difference in the lives of young people, and the legacy of your success will reverberate for generations to come.” For this “tangible difference to continue in the lives of young people,” what are the critical steps we each can take to protect youth arts programs?

One of the signs at the 2018 Women’s March struck me—it was a quote from author, educator, social activist and feminist, Dr. Angela Davis: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept…” I believe the times demand that we become vigilant, proactive and outspoken in making sure that funding in our respective communities is available for the programs that need it most; programs that can help youth learn, grow and transform their lives through creative expression. I urge you to become an advocate for a local youth arts organization to ensure that a portion of your local state’s art monies will be equitably distributed to programs that help underserved urban and rural youth.

I attended the NAHYP Awards program in 2013 at the White House, which was hosted by former First Lady Michelle Obama. She so generously acknowledged each recipient as they came to the stage and she whispered a positive word of encouragement to each of them. That is a memory for a lifetime. We all know the power of support, encouragement and love. It is up to us to make sure youth art initiatives like the NAHYP Awards don’t die. They can continue in a different form, but the impact must be the same.