What's in a prize? During another year of fights about arts funding, local student says an NEA songwriting award made a difference

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Every year, art-world headlines — especially the ones where money meets the art — seem like a violent dance, lurching between people desperate to find cash, people desperate to spend it and the people who actually control the pursestrings.

Small details change, but the themes are evergreen: Nonprofits are struggling. Public funding is stuck in the middle of political knife duels between Republicans and Democrats. Auction houses inevitably sell marquee artworks for record-smashing prices.

This year in headlines was no different: President Trump’s spring wish-list budget proposed killing the National Endowment for the Arts; King County voters shot down a sales tax (called Proposition 1) to fund arts, culture and science; Christie’s auction house sold a Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus for $450.3 million.

But smaller, no less important arts stories live in quieter places between those breathless headlines about big-time politics and pocketbooks.

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Local student Angel Rodriguez, for example, won a $25,000 college scholarship (plus a publishing deal with Samuel French) after taking first place in the NEA’s first “musical theater songwriting challenge.”

It’s not the kind of arts program that makes or breaks a budget negotiation.

But, said NEA spokesperson Victoria Hutter, “those kinds of projects are what we do to provide opportunities for young people that can help launch them into whatever career they choose — musical theater or other pursuits.”

Last year’s songwriting challenge was a pilot program in three cities: Seattle, Minneapolis, Dallas.

Rodriguez came in as the Seattle finalist and national champion with “Bleeding” — inspired, he said, by police brutality and finding hope in hopelessness. “It’s about being in a situation where you feel like you’ve fallen down,” he added, “and don’t know if you’re going to be able to get up.”

The songwriting challenge was successful for the NEA, too. This year, it’s open to students across the country.

Funding for similar arts programs, Rodriguez said, “should definitely not be dimmed down — the NEA being funded by the federal government gave me an opportunity, opened doors for me. I’ve been able to perform at the Gregory Awards, the Mayor’s Arts Awards. It helped me get myself out there.”

Rodriguez was a junior at Puget Sound Adventist Academy (a Seventh-day Adventist high school in Kirkland) when he wrote “Bleeding.”

Now he’s taking prerequisite courses at Renton Technical College with plans to transfer, maybe to Andrews University in Michigan, another Adventist school.

But since winning the NEA prize — which included a trip to New York City, where he performed “Bleeding” with professional musicians for the judges’ panel — Rodriguez has been thinking about applying to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“Now I feel like I’d have a better chance at that because I won as a songwriter,” he said. “I wasn’t even going to enter until one of my friends was like, ‘man, just enter it.’ It was all very educational, very enlightening — you just have to have the strength to get up and follow your voice. That can give people the courage to speak up and make a difference.”

The NEA is accepting applications for its 2018 songwriting challenge through Jan. 5.

The headline duel — between where the money is, who controls it and who wants it — hasn’t stopped. And public-funding agencies like the NEA are still part of the dance. This week, while federal lawmakers wrestled over the current Republican tax plan (which could still lead to a government shutdown), Kansas Senator Pat Roberts proposed a 3 a.m. amendment, swapping federal subsidies for low-income artist housing with low-income veterans’ housing.

Like other federal agencies in Washington, D.C., Hutter said, the NEA is also waiting to see what will happen with the GOP tax negotiations — and watching for the possibility of a shutdown.

So it’s nail-biting time?

Hutter sounded like she started to say something, but stopped herself — then just laughed ruefully.