Sen. McCain says NEA grant is wasteful

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PUTNEY >> U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wants the American people to wake up.

In the preface to his recently published report, "America's Most Wasted," an 18-page ranking of Washington's most pork-laden projects, he said he hopes the report will "help the American people demand an end to wasteful government spending once and for all."

McCain singles out a $23 million Department of Homeland Security contract that was eventually terminated and a $14 million bill for a U.S. Department of Agriculture catfish inspection station that overlapped another catfish inspection office.

And McCain is steamed that Congress spent $753 million renovating the Cannon House Office Building, the oldest congressional office on Capitol Hill.

And right up there in the top 10, among the billions of dollars McCain thinks Washington wasted last year, is a $30,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant that was given out to Sandglass Theater of Putney for the theater company's Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival, planned for Sept. 11-20 in venues around Windham County.

"The National Endowment for the Arts awarded a $30,000 grant to the Sandglass Center for Puppetry and Theater Research to support a series of puppet shows as part of its so-called 'Art Works' grant program," McCain wrote, further showing his outrage by putting quotations around terms such as "the highest standard of excellence," and "adult" themed puppet shows.

McCain apparently thinks the NEA's support of puppetry is out of control, sighting a former report on federal waste that highlighted a $150,000 grant that went for a Long Island puppet festival.

"It is so absurd it is unbelievable," said Sandglass Theater co-founder Ines Zeller Bass, who started Sandglass Theater in 1982 in Munich, Germany, with her husband Eric Bass.

They moved to Vermont in the mid-1980s.

Along with being angry that McCain included her puppet theater's grant among the 10 most wasteful spending decisions made by the federal government, Zeller Bass said the senator's report only highlights the importance of presenting provocative work to the public.

The 2015 Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival will bring companies from Cuba, France, Germany, Canada and the U.S. to Vermont to "bring both artist and community together," according to the Sandglass website.

This is the ninth edition of the festival, which has presented over 75 companies from 20 countries over the past 20 years.

"He is talking about a $30,000 award that is being used to create conversations about important issues," Zeller Bass said. "He belittles the work and I'm sure he has never even seen us. Politicians are always dragging the arts into their dirty business, but things like this are so outrageous it only serves to drive themselves into the ground."

Eric Bass said he has been receiving support through social media since the news hit that Sandglass was included in the wasteful spending report. Bass said supporters said he should be mad, but Bass said there were other more immediate issues to fight.

"Actually, for what its worth, I am not at all angry. Or let's say not about this," he wrote in an email message from Germany. "There are really big things to be angry about, like why White Privilege is not a discussion on every politician's agenda, or why Cultural Identity and Arts Forums are not understood to be the foundations of community. This McCain thing is a drop in the bucket, but it does point out what the real issues are. The list is long."

"It's strange to find Senator McCain misdirecting his attention like this," said David Carle, spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "After all, the meter's at $2 trillion and still running on the Iraq war that he championed, one of the costliest mistakes in modern American history."

McCain spokeswoman Julie Tarallo would not say if McCain had seen a Sandglass performance or if he sent a staffer to Putney to report on one of the theater company's productions.

"Senator McCain's America's Most Wasted is the first in a series of reports that highlights, names and shames some of the most outrageous pork-barrel spending projects, including a $30,000 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant for a series of puppet shows at Sandglass Center for Puppetry and Theater Research," Tarallo said. "As government spending continues to spiral out of control – with the national debt recently exceeding $18 trillion and the deficit projected to reach $1 trillion over the next decade – Senator McCain believes taxpayers should not be forced to pick up the tab for such unnecessary projects."

Not only is Sandglass Theater necessary, Vermont Arts Council Executive Director Alex Aldrich said, but he called Sandglass Theater one of the finest cultural agencies in the state.

Aldrich said the NEA grant is not an example of pork, because each grant is peer-reviewed, and not decided by a single senator or congressperson like typical pork projects.

And he said McCain's decision to include the arts grant among the millions of dollars spent through other projects points to the necessity to extend, and not diminish, public investments in the arts.

Included in this year's Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival is "White Like Me: A Honky Dory Puppet Show," a performance by Paul Zaloom.

In Zaloom's show a male Caucasian leaves his home planet of Caucazoid, arrives on Earth and kicks the "aliens" out of Arizona, McCain's home state. The performance, according to the Puppets in the Green Mountains website, is a "toy theater spectacle about the male Caucasian human."

"This is one of the preeminent puppet festivals in the world. For decades Sandglass has been providing entertainment and thought-provoking, provocative art works for Vermonters, and for people all over the world," said Aldrich. "It is easy to pick on the arts, but McCain obviously doesn't know a thing about what Sandglass does. They are picking on us because we are Vermont, and because it sounds like an easy target. But calling this one of the biggest examples of pork at its worst could not be further from the truth, and I'm not buying it."

"Sandglass has been very active in presenting work that addresses issues of social justice, including the politics of race, gender, and disability," Bass said. "We cannot talk about race without talking about white privilege. I think that this is a subject that many politicians – especially conservative white politicians – do not want to talk about. But race is one of the most pressing justice issues of our society, and we cannot address it if we do not look at what it means to be white in a racial context. This seems to be a discussion that Senator McCain would prefer not be supported. If that is true, I find it shameful."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be contacted at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.


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