As US president Donald Trump concludes his first week on the job, Americans are sorting out fact from fiction. One rumor: The president will eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a government agency that funds performing and fine arts, as well as literature.
The political news site The Hill reported on Jan. 19 that the new administration is making plans for major budget cuts, which would include the elimination of the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds the National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service, would be privatized, said the Hill.
The proposal isn’t a complete surprise. Since its inception in 1965, the federal government has questioned the value of the NEA, calling it a bloated waste of public money and criticizing it as a funder of obscenities. The agency had a budget of $148 million in 2016, about .0042% of the total federal spending that year. It’s funded writers such as Jeffrey Eugenides, David Foster Wallace, Alice Walker, and Lorrie Moore, and was an early funder of the Sundance Film Festival. It’s supported artists Agnes Martin and Donald Judd, among many others.
The sources in the Hill report have ties to the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, points out non-profit Americans for the Arts. This same foundation outlined in 1997 ”Ten Good Reasons” to stop funding the agency. Among their points: The arts existed before the NEA, and would exist after it; and the NEA is “welfare for cultural elitists.”
The agency’s current budget is on what’s called a continuing resolution, which is good through April of this year. Says the agency in an email Jan. 26, “We look forward to participating in the usual budget process for the FY18 budget with the Office of Management and Budget and The White House. So, nothing has changed as we continue to do our work; processing grants, advising applicants, convening review panels, etc.”
Here’s how the NEA has been challenged by the federal government:
When president Ronald Reagan arrived in office, he had plans to cut the agency. The task force assigned to review the agency eventually talked him out of getting rid of it entirely, although they said they would reduce the budget by half. The administration eventually cut the budget by about 10%.
In the late 1980s artist Andres Serrano exhibited a work called “Piss Christ” with money from the NEA, sparking outrage across the US. Congress proposed to cut all funding to the NEA for the year 1990, but the amendment didn’t pass, and the NEA’s budget was reduced a symbolic $45,000, the cost of the exhibit and another controversial artwork by Robert Mapplethorpe.
By the 1990s, the NEA needed Congress to reauthorize it, and for the first time in the agency’s history both houses had a Republican majority. In 1994 Republican congressman Newt Gingrich wrote the “Contract with America” and promised to eliminate funding for the NEA over the next few years. Gingrich was a vocal opponent of public funding for art that seemed to promote sexual promiscuity or which glorified human excrement. The NEA wasn’t eliminated, but had its budget cut by 40% from 1996 to 1997.
The battles led the Heritage Foundation to propose getting rid of the NEA entirely. The same year, a bill removing all funding passed the House of Representatives, but failed to pass the Senate.
A group of 174 Republican Congressmen proposed a budget plan that included the end of the NEA. The Obama administration proposed to cut the NEA budget by about 13%, but it was cut by just 6%.