Screenshot of IMLS funded Charles E. Burchfield digitization project, 2016-2018; Digital image

Screenshot of IMLS funded Charles E. Burchfield digitization project, 2016-2018; Digital image

We need IMLS! by Heather Gring

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Yesterday it was announced that the Trump administration has (once again) proposed the permanent closure of the Institute of Museum and Library Services in the 2021 Federal Budget. The Trump administration has also called for the elimination of other major federal sources of cultural funding such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. IMLS funding is crucial for supporting libraries, museums, and cultural institutions all over America. Though the resounding support of engaged citizens and legislators have stopped the closure of these cultural lifelines from happening the past three years, every time these closures are proposed in the Federal Budget, it causes waves of anxiety and fear for cultural organizations throughout this country. I’m not just referring to museums, but the entire public library system, historical houses and genealogical centers, small cultural centers and so much more—our ability as US citizens to enrich ourselves and learn about our collective history is endangered every time these cuts are proposed.

Sometimes these cuts can seem abstract and distant from our lived experience, so I wanted to take a moment to write about how IMLS funding impacts the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Since 1996, the Burchfield Penney has received close to $300,000 from IMLS grants, allowing us to conduct important research about Western New York artists, develop new technologies, and hire local people working in the cultural sector. Specifically, the Institute of Museum and Library Services has funded a conservation study of the Charles Rand Penney collection, the development of our collection database, and digitization of 15,000+ objects from the Charles E. Burchfield Archives.

As the Archivist at the Burchfield, I was directly involved with the Burchfield’s most recent IMLS grant—from 2016-2018, the Burchfield Penney received $50,000 a year to digitize and make accessible 15,000 objects from the Charles E. Burchfield archive. This funding made it possible for us to make Charlie Burchfield’s work dramatically more accessible—not just by photographing and scanning his works, but also taking the time to do in-depth description of each sketch: transcribing his writing, dating when possible, analyzing the sketches for subject terms (“trees”, “winter”, “botanicals”) and connections to finished paintings. A lot of the specifics of this project are incredibly nerdy if you’re not into metadata standards (but if you are, read more about it here). The gist of it is that we now adhere to internationally recognized standards of how to digitize sketches correctly because of this grant. We have become better stewards and supporters of Burchfield’s artwork because of this grant. Charlie’s art will be accessible to people all around the world because of this grant. These are huge achievements which would have been much more difficult without IMLS funding.

I’m particularly proud that the IMLS funding allowed the Burchfield to hire four paid interns a year for three years. Paid internships are rare in cultural fields but are incredibly necessary for some students to succeed. It is a privilege to be able to work for free, and many students literally cannot afford to take unpaid internships. Back when I was an intern, I dealt with this issue as well—in 2011, I was interning full-time at the Burchfield Penney during the day, and waitressing in Allentown every night. It was exhausting. I still have no idea how I survived that summer. In a world where even entry-level jobs require “prior experience”, paid internships are vital to level the playing field for lower income students, allowing them to gain the experiences they need to thrive in the cultural heritage field. Over three years, these paid internships put $60,000 into the pockets of students who were spending their money in our local economy—an important reminder that cultural funding has a ripple effect on local economies. Grant funding provides infusions of resources that often stay in the community, as staff pay is then redistributed locally.

I would not be here in Buffalo if not for grant funding of the arts. I believe that the “Buffalo brain drain” would be much more pronounced in the cultural heritage sector if not for grant funding. As a Buffalo State College Alumni, I am heartened to be part of the shift away from that narrative, and that has been largely because of grant funding. The first six years of my position as Archivist at the Burchfield Penney were paid for by a variety of grant-funded sources. The 2016 IMLS grant paid for a substantial portion of my salary as well as the paid internships. Over the years, grant funding has allowed me to conduct oral history interviews with over 90 regional artists, preserve the history of many local artists and art institutions (most notably Artpark), supervise and support over 110 interns, consult with community organizations on how to care for their history, hire multiple Project Archivists, and so much more than I can describe here. This is the thing about cultural funding: the intent of cultural organizations is to improve the quality of life for our whole community. As the Archivist at a regional arts museum, the work I do has the potential to benefit so many people—past, present, and future. Without grant funding—private, state, and federal— our cultural institutions cannot thrive. And we will all be poorer for it.

-Heather Gring, Archivist


Some ways to get involved: 

 Please call, write, or email your Elected Representatives know that we need IMLS, NEA, and NEH!!

The American Library Association is actively advocating for library funding--learn how to get involved here!