Late last month, a citizens brigade of young people created a human chain at the gates of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to prevent thieves from escaping with priceless treasures.

“They know this is their cultural heritage,” Egypt’s antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, told the New York Daily News. All of the artifacts were recovered, and those that were damaged can be repaired.

Meanwhile, here in America, some Republican members of Congress have embarked on a mission to undermine countless museums — and the artists, photographers, composers and writers whose work gives them meaning. They want to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts’ $165 million budget. They claim they have to wipe out the NEA to trim the current federal budget deficit, which is a whopping $1.5 trillion.

This stunt would be funny, if its consequences weren’t potentially so devastating for so many of America’s children.

In my home state of Ohio alone, NEA grants funded 16 programs that touched the lives of children in fiscal year 2010.

Cleveland Public Theatre, for example, was awarded $10,000 to help kids in a transitional home and treatment center create a play and perform it in social service and community settings. Cleveland Play House is using its $17,000 grant to teach a diverse group of high-school students how to create original plays. West Liberty’s Mad River Theater Works got $40,000 to support the creation of musicals in farm communities and small towns in rural Ohio.

Visit http://www.nea.gov and you’ll find similar programs helping children around the country:

In Detroit, Wayne State University students are teaching string lessons to elementary-age students.

Musicians in Northport, Ala., are teaching classes in blues music performance and history to children in after-school and summer programs.

In Whitesburg, Ky., independent filmmakers and artists are working with the Appalachian Media Institute to teach students how to produce documentaries and radio programs.

In Minneapolis, elementary-school children are learning how to use theater and storytelling skills to enhance their literacy development.

In Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s after-school mentorship program teaches underserved youths how to use digital and manual cameras to document their lives, homes and communities.

Small but mighty programs such as those are oh-so-expendable to anti-arts crusaders hogging center stage.

This isn’t the first time Republicans have tried to dismantle the NEA, which is a handy target whenever you’re trying to ramp up the culture wars. Expect to hear yet again about the NEA-funded artist who produced the photo of the crucifix in urine in 1987.

In response, NEA supporters tend to trumpet the museums and orchestras, but most of the larger institutions that benefit from the grants don’t depend on them. Smaller programs — the ones that support America’s children — need this money to survive.

Supporting the arts is a family value because it helps our children learn about two worlds, the one unfolding around them and the one churning deep inside them. For many kids — particularly those whose daily lives are harder than any person’s ever should be — art in all its forms is their only escape from the grip of life’s turmoil and their only chance to unleash creativity in meaningful ways.

When one of my colleagues, Plain Dealer theater critic Tony Brown, heard that I was going to write about the proposed gutting of the NEA, he walked over to my desk to remind me that civilizations always have relied on their artists.

“Governments go away; people are gone,” he said. “But the plays, artifacts, music and poetry remain. They tell the stories of what once was, of what used to be. What’s created for us now will speak for us when we’re gone.”

Besides, government leaders always have needed their artists. Leaders such as King James I, who lived many, many years ago.

James was King of England in 1604, when he appointed dozens of scholars to rewrite a collection of stories that had been making the rounds for centuries. He wanted the Greek and Hebrew texts translated into English and to be written with a lyrical quality for oral presentation.

As Tony Brown pointed out, “he didn’t write it himself. He turned to the writers.”

Seven years later, they finished the book, which still can be found in homes around the world.

You’ve likely heard of it.

To this day, we call it the King James Bible.

Connie Schultz is a columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.


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