By now you’ve heard that the Trump administration’s “skinny budget” calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Institute of Museum and Library Series (IMLS), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Together, these programs represent 0.02 percent of federal spending. Still, the administration is eager to place them in front of the firing squad to please their friends at the Heritage Foundation, the Republican Study Committee, and Breitbart. Let’s call it what it is – an attack on the arts, humanities, and freedom of expression.
To be fair, it’s nothing new. The NEA has been a conservative punching bag since the culture wars of the 1980s. Amid all the made-up controversy and hyperbolic attacks, it’s easy to forget why the NEA was founded in the first place, how it serves the people of this country, and the return on investment it provides. This is especially true in the current climate, which values noise and alternative fact at the expense of nuance, thoughtfulness, and truth.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy, witnessing a surge of American interest and participation in the arts, and the economic benefit associated with these activities, believed that a federal arts fund was in the country’s best interest. “The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is very close to the center of the nation’s purpose – and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization,” he wrote. “I would hope that in the years ahead, as our cultural life develops and takes on new forms, the Federal Government would be prepared to play its proper role in encouraging cultural activities throughout the Nation.” The process that began with Kennedy led to President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, which formally established the NEA and NEH. In the Act, Congress declared that “the arts and humanities belong to all people of the United States,” and “the world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and spirit.”
Take a moment to contemplate that statement. Being a leader in the realm of ideas and spirit was as important as might and wealth. Idealism be damned. A lot has happened in the 52 years since the act was passed, but the belief that the United States has more to offer its citizens and the world than power and money is as important today as it was in 1965. Indeed, most would argue that the United States would have neither might or wealth if it wasn’t for the creativity, ingenuity, and values that are embodied by American spirit, which are directly connected the study, practice, and appreciation of the arts and humanities. Or at least can be.
During the 1970s, the NEA expanded to support more disciplines, and it tackled big projects. In a Twilight Zone turn-of-events, the Old Post Office, which was saved by demolition partially by NEA efforts, served as the home for the NEA, NEH, and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities offices from 1983 until 2014, when the three agencies moved to Constitution Center to make way for the Trump Organization’s plans for a new hotel at the Old Post Office Pavilion. Yes, that one – the Trump International Hotel.
With the arrival of President Ronald Reagan, the NEA became a central piece of the culture wars between liberals and conservatives. Reagan’s budget director proposed a massive cut (50 percent) under the misguided belief that federal funding for the NEA somehow stifled private and corporate philanthropy, a belief that continues to persist on the right. Reagan’s transition team really wanted to hit the NEA hard. (Sound familiar?) A task force was formed. Upon reviewing the task force’s report, Reagan remarked in October of 1981 that the NEA and NEH “have served an important role in catalyzing additional private support, assisting excellence in arts and letters, and helping to assure the availability of arts and scholarship.” Let that sink in.
No, seriously. Let it sink in.
I’m not sure anyone would classify President Reagan as a champion of the NEA, as his efforts to cut the agency during his presidency are well-known, but even he saw its value and role in the greater landscape. And remember that the NEA’s budget in 1981 was $160 million (when adjusted for inflation, this equals more than $400 million in 2017 dollars); today, the NEA’s budget is around $148 million.
Of course, the history of the NEA is not without its challenges and controversies, including “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment” and “Piss Christ” (get over it, already!). After debate and scrutiny, the NEA evolved, broadening its reach and its mission. Today, the NEA is widely praised for its programs, projects, and activities. The agency “funds, promotes, and strengthens the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.”
As I mentioned, the NEA’s budget is around $148 million. That’s 46 cents per person each year. In the Washington, D.C., universe, it’s a small agency, but it has a huge impact on the nation’s cultural infrastructure. Despite the narrative propagated by the Trump team, the NEA reaches millions of people of all ages and backgrounds and in communities of all shapes and sizes – rural, suburban, exurban, urban, and everything in between. In fact, the NEA reaches every Congressional district in the nation, which is more than many agencies can claim.
Here in the Capital Region and the neighboring Berkshires, funding from the NEA has supported many of our most cherished cultural institutions. Over the last several years, the NEA has provided grants to the Albany Symphony Orchestra, Opera Saratoga, EMPAC, Salem Art Works, The Hyde Collection, MASS MoCA, Jacob’s Pillow Dance, the Clark Art Institute, Barrington Stage, Shakespeare & Company, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and others. NEA-funded festivals, activities, and performances have attracted thousands upon thousands of visitors to the region, and those visitors spent millions of dollars in our local economy. Furthermore, the NEA has funded projects like Hamilton, which have a far-reaching effect.
“At Opera Saratoga, the NEA has provided vital funding for some of the most adventurous programs – programs that reach beyond traditional opera audiences and provide opportunities for the public to be inspired, challenged, and moved,” says Lawrence Edelson, the artistic and general director of Opera Saratoga. “Support for the NEA helps not only to leverage critical additional support from our funders, but also enables organizations to offer programs to break down barriers, create meaningful dialogue, and enhance the quality of life for everyone – regardless of race, age, gender, income and geography.”
The NEA nurtures cultural activities, boosts accessibility and exposure to the arts for all citizens, and spurs investment in the communities that cultural institutions serve. It goes well beyond the quality of life and livability argument. Federal funding for the arts is an economic argument. NEA grants are not giveaways. They come with a matching requirement, which catalyzes private investment in our communities, spurring cultural tourism and economic growth. We’ve seen it in action here in the Capital Region and in the Berkshires. The return of investment on our 46 cents per year is remarkable.
Now, it is true that the arts won’t cease to exist if the NEA were to disappear, but don’t be fooled into thinking that foundations, individuals, and corporate philanthropy will fill the void. As well-intentioned and philanthropic as Capital Region resident are, there are too many organizations in need and too few major donors. Foundations and major donors will focus on filling the gap created by the loss of NEA, NEH, and IMLS funding (as well as cuts to education, environmental programs, Meals on Wheels, after school programs, and so on), meaning that they’ll have less funding to distribute to smaller nonprofit organizations, even if they’ve funded them in the past. The shift would have an impact on creative jobs and opportunities in the Capital Region, and most immediately, it would force program cuts for K-12 students, who are often the direct beneficiaries of NEA funding.
“We are very concerned about the potential loss of NEA funds to Jacob’s Pillow,” notes Andrea Sholler, managing director of Jacob’s Pillow Dance. “If the Trump administration succeeds in decimating the NEA, we will have to look at reducing spending which includes our programming and staffing costs.” Jacob’s Pillow supports a year-round staff of 30 people, which grows threefold during the summer Festival. Like many organizations, they’d potentially hire fewer employees and present fewer programs if the NEA disappeared.
On Meet the Press, President Trump’s budget director (director of the OMB), Mick Mulvaney, said that the administration couldn’t in good conscience ask coal miners in West Virginia to give money to the federal government that will go to the NEA. I’d like to set aside the fact that he insulted West Virginians and coal miners – as if they (and their families) have never read a book, watched PBS, been to a museum, listened to music, or appreciated art in any way – but I can’t, because it’s a stupid and absurd presumption. (Side note: If a Democrat used this asinine talking point, Fox News would be on fire.) But let’s set aside the fact that the NEA costs so little per person and suppose that the “America First” budget is really about “respect for the taxpayer,” as the administration claims. Then what do we make of the multimillion-dollar price tag for securing Trump Tower or the tens of millions already spent to cart President Trump and his entourage to Mar-a-Lago (“the Southern White House”) every weekend? Or what do we make of the wall? Because if we get to pick and choose where our tax dollars go, I’d like to reallocate my Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago contributions to the NEA bucket. But we know it’s all a “ruse,” as President Trump would say, when he’s redirecting reporters.
“It is the mark of a great democracy to support the arts, which are an expression of what makes us human,” the Association of Art Museum Directors said on Jan. 19. To put this another way, the elimination of this federal support of the arts would be a sign of a failed democracy. At the very least, it is another sign of the erosion of our democracy and the institutions that supported us. If one truly wanted to make America great again, one might look to the past. Say, the National Foundation for Arts and Humanities Act of 1965.
“It is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of creative talent.” That language, pulled from the act is still relevant today. Perhaps even more so.
Now, I understand that the budget is a guiding document, a first shot across the bow. I also understand that the administration may be trying to start at zero to strengthen their negotiating position. This “budget” may stand little chance of going anywhere in its current form, but the principles that are outlined, espoused, and defended within its pages are appalling. Here’s hoping that the Congress will show some courage, resist this “skinny budget,” and turn back the Trump administration’s agenda, which is fiscally short-sighted, disastrously ignorant, and designed to weaken America.
Photo by W.B. Belcher