The Campaign Spot

How Much NEA and NEH Help Harry Reid’s Cowboy Poetry Festival

Hmmm. Over in the Corner, Bob Costa and Mark Steyn have great laughs about Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.)’s furious response to proposed spending cuts, lamenting, “The mean-spirited bill, H.R. 1 . . . eliminates the National Endowment of the Humanities, National Endowment of the Arts,” said Reid. “These programs create jobs. The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist.” (h/t Shira Toeplitz) Costa helpfully provides a link to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, here.

Searching through the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the only reference to a grant that I can find to Elko is on this list of grant awards from the July 2000:

Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV Outright: $5,000

The purchase of storage furniture, supplies, and equipment to preserve audiotapes that are related to folklife and cultural traditions of the American West. (16 months)

The NEH magazine Humanities wrote about the festival in 2001. In 2008, the Elko County Library received the “Created Equal” bookshelf, “a collection of seventeen classic hardcover books for young readers, all related to the Created Equal theme.” This spreadsheet listing all NEH Preservation Assistance Grants [PAGs] from 2000 to 2010 lists the Western Folklife Center and Elko, Nevada once, the 2000 grant of $5,000.

It seems Reid misspoke; NEH barely gave any money to the center or the festival. But the National Endowment for the Arts has been more generous with taxpayer dollars. However, even these are fairly meager sums in comparison to most budgetary figures thrown around in Washington.

First, an NEA grant back in the mid-’80s launched the project:

Lucky for [folklorist Hal] Cannon, the NEA said yes to his proposal to host a conference on the genre. The Arts Endowment supported the project with a $50,000 grant that Cannon and a small group of folklorists used to research and contact cowboy poets. Supported by the NEA grant, Cannon was able to take a year’s leave of absence from his job as Utah folk arts coordinator to work on what in 1985 would become the first Gathering. The founders chose the small town of Elko, Nevada, known for its ties to the Old West, precisely because it was a small town — cowboys did not want to go to a city or a resort. It didn’t hurt that Elko also had plenty of cheap hotels.

The center received some grants in the 1990s: $31,500 in 1991; $35,400 in 1995. Other grants were made in 1993 and 1994, but the pdfs are not currently loading.

For the past decade, the center started receiving modest five-figure grants almost annually. In 2001:

Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV

PROJECT TYPE: New Technology $10,000

To support a partnership with Great Basin College and Elko County Economic Diversification Authority to develop and implement Internet marketing for traditional artists and craftsmen in the underserved and rural interior West. This project will allow the Western Folklife Center to identify and work with selected artists and local ranching, Native American, Hispanic and other relevant communities in marketing and selling their work to a wider audience.

Then in 2002:

Western Folklife Center Elko, NV


To support continued fieldwork on the cowboy poetry tradition. The fieldwork will add substantially to Western Folklife Center’s body of work on cowboy poets and cowboy poetry, illuminating the variety of reasons each poet has for writing by providing more depth to the biographical, social, familial, cultural, literary and artistic record.

Then, according to the NEA annual report from 2003:

In FY 2003, the Western Folklife Center received an NEA Heritage/Preservation grant of $50,000 to support the 20th anniversary of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which took place on January 24-31, 2004. The grant aided four components of the anniversary event: the reunion of performers and folklorists reaching back to the original gathering, an exhibit featuring archived materials from the Western Folklife Center, a commemorative program booklet, and video documentation of the anniversary gathering for historical record.


Western Folklife Center Elko, NV


To support the 2005 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering (NCPG). The 2005 theme Aross the Generations will pair ten artists under the age of 30 with five senior mentors as part of an effort to engage younger people in the practice and perpetuation of the verbal and material arts of ranching culture.

Another grant in 2006:

Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV


To support Making West Home: Stories from the Deep West, a series of storytelling and foodways residency programs in venues across the rural western United States. Each three-day residency includes one educational workshop for high school students, a day-long workshop about community stories and foodways, and a community-wide evening potluck and storytelling session.

Another in 2007:

Western Folklife Center Elko, NV


To support Beyond Borderlands: Mexican-American Ranch Traditions in the American West. Presentations will honor the cultural traditions, poetry, song, and celebrations associated with the ranching communities of northern Mexico and practiced in the West today.

In 2008:

Western Folklife Center Elko, NV


To support the Out West, Back East Tour. In honor of the center’s 25 years of presenting the arts of ranch culture, the project will bring some of the West’s most respected poets, narrators, singers, and songwriters to urban centers in the East, Midwest, and West for performances and short residencies.

In 2009:

Western Folklife Center Elko, NV


To support Southeast Cowboys. The project will present ranching culture from the Florida “cracker cowboys” and the Louisiana “swamp cowboys” at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

The Western Folklife Center also received some stimulus money:

Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV


CATEGORY: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act FIELD/DISCIPLINE: Folk and Traditional Arts

The NEA’s grant listing for fiscal year 2011 lists:

Western Folklife Center Elko, NV


CATEGORY: Access to Artistic Excellence

FIELD/DISCIPLINE: Folk and Traditional ArtsTo support the production of the semi-permanent exhibition Ranchlines: Verses and Visions of the Rural West. The exhibition will use audio and video media, visual art, hands-on interactive elements, and the display of contemporary handmade horse gear and other crafts to emphasize creativity, ingenuity, and a poetic approach to life and work in the rural ranching West.

A few years aren’t coming up in the NEA search engine, but it appears most years the Center received grants ranging from $30,000 to $50,000.

In short, Harry Reid believes that cutting this $50,000 or less to the Cowboy Poetry Festival is too deep a cut.

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