At 50, the National Endowment for the Arts is still fighting to make the performing arts available to everyone, while the influence of wealthy donors increasingly tilts the balance.
Photo Credits: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
President Trump’s budget proposal would have a disproportionate impact on organizations in rural and underserved communities.
On Thursday morning, President Trump’s proposal for the federal budget confirmed a fact long suspected: the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Together, the four groups receive less than a billion dollars a year, with the NEA and the NEH costing taxpayers $148 million a year each—approximately 0.004 percent of the federal budget individually. Their elimination would be largely symbolic, signaling the Trump administration’s intent to slash spending it sees as “wasteful” while potentially spending 146 times as much as the NEA’s annual allotment on a border wall whose efficacy even Republican lawmakers have disputed.
But eliminating the NEA would also have a very real cost. Its grants are bestowed to all 50 states in the nation, in all congressional districts. Forty percent of the NEA’s budget goes directly to states to spend for themselves, with the proviso that they match the funds dollar for dollar via their own arts agencies—encouraging a further investment in the arts at the state level. Just as significantly, 65 percent of the NEA’s direct grants go to small and medium-sized arts groups, keeping the arts alive in rural and underserved communities. It’s here where the agency’s elimination would be most keenly felt, at organizations largely ignored by private donors, but which bring the arts to audiences including veterans and schoolchildren, often in impoverished neighborhoods.
After the NEA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015, Andy Horwitz wrote an analysis for The Atlantic of the agency’s funding, and the larger history of arts funding in America. He cited a 2011 report that found 55 percent of individual gifts and grants to arts organizations in 2009 went to the top two percent of institutions—those with an annual budget of more than $5 million. Although the most storied arts centers in the U.S. will also be affected by a lack of NEA funds, they already have an existing infrastructure of private donors. By comparison, smaller groups outside of cities will be much harder hit. One example is the Wormfarm Institute in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, which aims to integrate culture and agriculture, and which listed only a single individual donor contributing more than $1,000 in 2015, but which will receive$35,000 this year from the NEA.
Wormfarm neatly encapsulates both the NEA’s larger mission to bring the arts to all Americans and its smaller goal to bring different communities together. When President Lyndon B. Johnson founded the NEA in 1965, he cited a goal of serving “not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” Analyzing Johnson’s legacy in the Washington Post in 2015, the art critic Philip Kennicott summarized the 36th president’s mission as giving Americans “the tools of encounter,” allowing them to experience each other’s lives via art, music, and film. Johnson, Kennicott wrote, believed “that if Americans could see what was on the other side of the tracks or the other side of the country, once intractable problems would disappear.”
Currently, 40 percent of NEA-supported activities take place in high-poverty neighborhoods, with 36 percent of grants helping underserved populations, including programs for veterans and people with disabilities. Over the last five decades, the NEA has nurtured grassroots organizations that existed off the radar of private donors, while bringing them prestige and attention that has helped them raise their profiles. It has also pioneered partnerships with other agencies, like the NEA Military Healing Arts Network, which supports art therapy for wounded veterans, active military members, and their families. This kind of work can and should be bipartisan: Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen Pence, announced on Inauguration Day that art therapy was one of her official causes.
Arts institutions are gearing up for a fight, relying on the fact that the elimination of the NEA and the NEH would require Congress to repeal the laws that founded them in the first place. It’s here that the NEA’s work at the local level may help its cause. “I will be working as hard as I can, internally and publicly, to make sure these programs are funded,” the New Jersey Republican Representative Leonard Lance told The Washington Post. “All of my peers have arts venues in their districts. This affects all states and all congressional districts.”
The NEA, as a federal agency, can’t advocate for itself, although its chairman, Jane Chu, has explained in a statement that the organization will “continue our practice of educating [the public] about the NEA’s vital role in serving our nation’s communities.” Meanwhile, administrators, teachers, and artists will likely begin lobbying for the preservation of an endowment that costs a fraction of the culture budgets in other nations. (The U.K. budget for arts and culture funding was £451 million in 2013, while France’s budget for the “cultural field” the same year was €3.51 billion.)
Signing the Arts and Humanities Bill in 1965, President Johnson said, “In the long history of man, countless empires and nations have come and gone. Those which created no lasting works of art are reduced today to short footnotes in history’s catalog.” But preserving the NEA and the NEH will depend on Republican lawmakers seeing not only the value of great works of art, but the worth of smaller cultural programs whose impact is just as significant.