By MAUNETTE LOEKS Star-Herald
Funding from the Nebraska Cultural Endowment has benefited Panhandle organizations that provide arts and human events to the community.
Maggie Smith, the new Director of Endowment, visited the Panhandle earlier this month to speak about Nebraska’s cultural endowment, as well as introduce herself to leaders in the arts and humanities community.
Smith took over as executive director of the Nebraska Cultural Endowment in mid-March. Prior to taking over as Head of Endowment, Smith served as Director of Operations at KANEKO, co-leading fundraising and development strategy while overseeing marketing, communications, programming and operations. She spent around 20 years in New York and Ireland, with her experiences involving setting up a non-profit organization in Dublin, Ireland, focused on creativity and writing. She has also worked in technology, having managed innovative products and programs at Yahoo and also having worked for Microsoft.
When asked if she had always had an interest in the arts, Smith said yes, recalling her first dream was to become an opera singer.
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“From the age of about 13, I trained as an opera singer until I went to college,” she said. “And then I decided, I didn’t really think that was the career path for me, but I’ve always been involved in theater and music. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid.”
After moving to New York, she says, she experimented, having taken acting classes, getting involved in the arts community and writing poetry. She earned her MFA in Fine Arts and Poetry and even while working in technology she found herself teaching creative writing and communications in English.
Growing up in the Missouri Valley, Iowa, she said, she grew up in a rural community where there was a lot going on in the arts and humanities.
“I had a lot of people who were very supportive of me and a lot of people from the smaller community who really, you know, were passionate about the arts and made sure our community had what it needed.”
While in the Panhandle representing Nebraska’s cultural endowment, Smith said she got to see that same spirit firsthand in communities like Alliance, Scottsbluff-Gering and Chadron. During her trip, she was the guest of honor at a reception at the West Nebraska Arts Center on June 9. However, she also visited other locations in western Nebraska, traveling to the Carnegie Arts Center at Alliance. Rita Stinner, of Gering, is chair of the board of the Nebraska Cultural Endowment and leads Smith on a tour of the Panhandle.
“There are creative people everywhere, in every city,” she said. “In the smallest town, you can imagine that there is someone who is creative and will make something beautiful out of it. There is always someone trying to do something interesting, artistic or cultural The more resources they have, the more they can do and the more they can share that with other people.
Bringing these resources to the community is a role in which the Nebraska Cultural Endowment leads. Nebraska’s cultural endowment is unique, the only public-private cultural trust in the country. Since its inception, $15 million in funds have been disbursed statewide. In fact, Smith said, every county and legislative district in Nebraska benefited.
“The biggest part of endowment is giving people resources and getting that sustained support, forever,” she said.
The Nebraska Cultural Endowment was established in 1998, with up to $500,000 in public funds allocated each year to match private funds raised by the endowment. In 2021, the Nebraska Legislature approved increasing this annual appropriation to $1 million through 2030. The money is invested in the endowment, which exists in perpetuity or forever. Interest from these funds is attributed to the Nebraska Arts Council and Nebraska Humanities.
For every $500,000 the NCE raises, the State of Nebraska matches equal funding. This money is then invested. Using interest from the endowment, the NCE awards money to the Nebraska Arts Council and Humanities Nebraska.
“The more the endowment grows, the more revenue we have,” Smith said.
Stinner, who many will remember from the 18 years she led choral programs at Western Nebraska Community College, said the increased stipend means that between the endowment and the Nebraska Legislature, more than 40 million dollars of funds will be raised.
“I always say the grant money helps things like Opera Omaha and the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra, but it also helps very small theaters in towns like Harrison or Rushville. These grants reach across the state and this (endowment) will help generations to come,” Stinner said.
She touted the endowment as helping many programs across the Panhandle. Speakers at sites like Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff National Monument were made possible by grants from the Humanities Nebraska organization. The funds that benefited the Midwest Theater, the West Nebraska Arts Center and the Dawes County Museum, where a Smithsonian exhibit titled Crossroads: Change in Rural America was on view throughout June, are made possible with funds from endowment. Veterans and youth programs are among the many programs funded through the endowment.
And these programs are just a few of the programs made possible through the endowment, which is the only one with a private partnership in the country. Smith and Stinner said they are working to raise awareness of the endowment, as well as the Nebraska Arts Council and Humanities Nebraska, as many organizations and other efforts could use the funding for their community efforts.
“We are all concerned about the economic development of our communities because that is the lifeblood of the community – tourism and economic development,” Stinner said. “And this money stimulates the arts and humanities in small rural communities, where there could be an emigration of citizens. This money will keep it fresh and interesting and provide opportunities for our young people.
Locally, Stinner said, Hod Kosman, of Scottsbluff, and Gretchen Peters, of Gering, serve on the staffing advisory board. There are also many community leaders who support the endowment, through donations and other efforts.
For more information on the endowment, visit its website, nebraskaculture.org.