There's a legendary story at the state Capitol about a grande dame from New Orleans who was lobbying lawmakers in support of funding for cultural institutions. She buttonholed a New Orleans legislator who was on his way to a three-martini lunch, and as she launched into her pitch, the flustered lawmaker did his best to cut her off with an awkward promise of support.
"You can count on me," he said, "cuz if ya ain't got culcha, ya ain't got shit!"
And then he fled, leaving an equally flustered grande dame wondering whether to thank him or scold him.
I am reminded of that story every time I get an email from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH) promoting one of its many excellent programs, or when I pick up a copy of LEH's award-winning quarterly Louisiana Cultural Vistas. For decades, LEH has made sure that Louisiana recognized, celebrated and, above all, sustained its unique culture.
LEH also has provided critical mass to programs designed to lift Louisiana out of America's intellectual basement. I'm talking about family literacy programs, professional improvement programs for teachers, programmatic support for local libraries, schools and museums, and more. Over the past four decades, LEH has poured $66 million into grants for locally initiated projects, and it has served as the principal source of funding for documentary films in Louisiana.
LEH accomplished all that with state funding and private donations. State support peaked at $2 million in 2007-2008. Today it is zero, thanks mostly to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who, despite his Ivy League and Oxford pedigree, apparently fails to recognize the vital role LEH plays in promoting our state's uniqueness and enriching the lives of its citizens. Jindal has no problem paying his top political appointees fat salaries to kowtow to his ideological agenda, but he has no use for an institution that fosters critical thinking.
That's too bad, because LEH probably delivers more for every state dollar invested in its programs than any other private vendor.
Jindal's cuts hit LEH hard, but they hit Louisiana citizens and more than 600 LEH partner organizations even harder. The agency suspended its entire grant cycle in the current fiscal year. LEH president Michael Sartisky calls the impact of the cuts "the litany of losses."
Yet, LEH soldiers on.
This week, in celebration of the bicentennial of Louisiana's statehood, LEH is releasing a beautiful hardcover book tracing the history of art in Louisiana. A Unique Slant of Light: The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana includes 276 entries on Louisiana artists and more than 400 images. The book, commissioned by the Louisiana Bicentennial Commission, represents "proof of our entrepreneurial ability to survive," Sartisky says.
LEH officially launches the publication with a party at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The event, like most LEH programs, is free and open to the public. The book sells for $120, but it includes more than just words and pretty pictures.
"We've aligned the book's entries with the cutting-edge online digital capabilities of LEH's KnowLA: The Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana History and Culture (www.knowla.org), to produce an innovative and lasting record of the state's artistic heritage that can be explored for free by all citizens," Sartisky notes.
These are truly the best of times and the worst of times for LEH and its partner organizations. Hopefully, Jindal and state lawmakers soon will recognize the damage they have done and reverse course on state funding for LEH. If not, we won't have culcha for long.