The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art may call her the associate director of curatorial affairs, but Kathleen Bickford Berzock is a storyteller. It's what drives her exhibitions.
A few years ago, Berzock became interested in the trade routes that brought Islam to West Africa in the Middle Ages and began research for an art exhibition on the topic. But she wanted to know what else was traveling on those trade routes.
The answer? Gold. That's what led Berzock to her current project, an exhibition with a working title of Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Trans-Saharan Exchange.
"Is it important that the American public learn about the role that Africa played in laying the foundations for the world we live in today?" Berzock asks. "That's really what's at stake in this exhibition."
Berzock and the Block received a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a federal agency that provides money for research and artistic projects along with educational and community engagement programs, to fund the exhibition's development. That allowed Berzock to travel to Morocco, Mali, Nigeria and the U.K. to develop a list of potential exhibition pieces. She also assembled a team of art historians, archaeologists and historians focusing on Europe and Africa. The grant money will cover two all-group meetings.
To put together the exhibition, the Block will need hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the transportation and conservation of artifacts from around the world. Lisa Corrin, the Block's director, initially hoped to receive another grant from the NEH to launch the exhibition, which would offset many of those costs.
But now she has reason to worry. President Trump's 2018 budget proposal completely eliminates funding for 19 federal agencies, including the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an agency providing funds for artistic programs and organizations like the Block.
The NEH and the NEA began with President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society reforms of the 1960s, specifically the 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act. Since then, the programs have undergone various changes, leaving the NEH with a budget of close to $148 million in 2016, down significantly from its inflation-adjusted peak of $403 million in 1979.
Trump isn't the first president to propose defunding public arts, but he is the first to propose doing it all at once. In 1981, Ronald Reagan's incoming administration also wanted to cut the agencies over a three-year period. At the recommendation of a special task force, Reagan eventually decided to cut their budget by just 10 percent.
NEH budget in 2016
agencies will be completely defunded under Trump's budget, including NEA and NEH
Northwestern faculty members recieved research fellowships in 2016
NEH annually donates up to
for yearlong research fellowships
NEH gave the Illinois Humanities Council
As the NEH's budget has decreased, the federal government has cut some grants entirely. Rachel Zuckert, an associate professor of philosophy, narrowly received her grant. In 1985, she was awarded $1,800 through NEH's Young Scholars program for a high school research project about Montesquieu and Cicero's writings on Rome. The program was cut the following year.
Zuckert received her fourth grant last year to work on a book about the work of German philosopher J.G. Herder. She was one of four professors at the university to receive a grant last year. Northwestern had the most NEH research fellowships in the country for 2016. The grant will give Zuckert a year off from teaching to finish the book, which she's been writing on and off for the past 15 years.
"[In the humanities], we really just need some time to think," Zuckert says. "There's a lot of pressure about publishing more, but there's not a lot of thought about what the most important resource for doing that actually is, which is having the time to think about things."
The NEH isn't just making an impact at Northwestern, though, and this funding doesn't just affect faculty. Thanks to a $20,000 NEA grant, Selina Fillinger's (Comm '16) play Faceless, premiered at Skokie's Northlight Theatre in late January. Fillinger started writing the play, which centers on a white girl who tries to join the Islamic State group, through the Department of Theatre's undergraduate playwriting initiative during her senior year.
"It was the last thing on earth that I expected," Fillinger says of her play's premiere. "It's nice to feel like you can create and eat at the same time."
A research grant from the NEH also bolstered the creativity of Amy Stanley, an associate professor of history, when she decided her current book would not be published through an academic press. Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her Worlds looks at the city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) between 1821 and 1862, at one point the largest city in the world, through the eyes of a real woman named Tsuneno. The money from the NEH allowed Stanley to take a leave from teaching during the 2015-16 academic year, which she used to write nearly half the book and take a trip to Tsuneno's birthplace in Japan.
"What [being on leave] allows you to do is think, ‘OK, I don't have to write an academic history book. What else could this be?'" Stanley says. "I don't know if I would've tried to be as ambitious had I not had all that time to think."
While Trump's proposal has many academic, cultural and artistic organizations worried, history gives them reason for hope. Despite cuts, the NEH and NEA continue to fund projects today. And in the end, the presidential budget is only a recommendation, as Congress often approves a very different budget at the end of the process.
That's not to say Trump's proposal is insignificant. Future cuts to the NEH and the NEA could reduce individual project funding and lead to fewer funded projects. Corrin says budget cuts might lead to fewer exhibitions across the country.
"I'm not convinced that they're going to shutter the agencies," Corrin says. "I'm hoping we'll see the light."
With the possibility of cuts, or defunding, on the horizon, the future of Caravans of Gold is still unknown. Berzock says the Block plans to go forward in applying for an NEH implementation grant for the exhibition, a project which she has worked on for years of her career. But the issue of NEH and NEA funding is much bigger to her – it's a decision about the future of the country.
"As a society, do we want our government to be supporting art and culture?" Berzock asks. "Is that part of what makes us great? My answer to that is yes. I want to live in a country that invests in art and culture."