ART ATTACK

Who will lose if the US National Endowment for the Arts is eliminated?

Obsession
"America First"
Obsession
"America First"

US president Donald Trump’s Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again (pdf) is out, and as expected, the US agencies charged with preserving and supporting the country’s cultural and artistic life are on the chopping block. The budget proposes eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, among others.

“Today we learned that the President’s FY 2018 budget blueprint proposes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts,” the agency said in a statement on its website. “We are disappointed because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every Congressional District in the nation.”

At $147.9 million, the NEA’s budget is already a pittance in the grand scheme of the current federal budget—just 0.013% of all discretionary spending (which includes things like transportation, housing assistance, and defense, but excludes Medicare and Social Security), or 0.004% of the total federal budget in 2015.

But even if its budget barely registers on the federal government’s bottom line, it has had a tremendous impact on who has access to the arts in the US. Since 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has funded opportunities for Americans to participate in the arts, providing the grants that help pay for art shows, musical productions, and after-school programs in every congressional district in the US (pdf).

For some perspective, the NEA’s total budget amounts to about 0.06% of the projected total cost of Trump’s proposed border wall (or, put another way, a little over a third of the sum Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner is expected to receive from a Chinese insurance group for a stake in his real estate company’s property at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan).

Or, as the New York Times illustrated it:

Would cuts save much money? If these dots represent federal spending, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . then the combined budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be the size of the period in this sentence.

A small drop for the federal budget, but a “yuge” hit for the nation’s arts organizations

So, why does it matter if the US government gets out of the business of funding arts? How much impact can $112 million—the total that the NEA distributed in 2016—spread across thousands of arts organizations all over the country, have for those theaters, museums, choirs, and poetry festivals anyway?

The key point is that the impact of those grants goes far beyond the dollars’ face value. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts not only has symbolic value—a badge of honor making it easier for organizations to raise money from other donors—it also unlocks matching grants from local and state agencies. That $112 million unlocked around $500 million in matching funds from state, public, and private sources.

The NEA acts as a leveling force, bringing arts access to underserved areas

Despite claims that the NEA is “welfare for cultural elitists,” cutting federal support for the arts will have the greatest impact in rural areas and on the vast swath of America that sits between its coasts. Big city museums and performing arts centers often benefit from the largesse of corporations and luxury brands eager to associate themselves with the high culture they represent. But NEA grant money helps to smooth out access to the arts across the nation, said Ryan Stubbs, the research director at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. It funnels essential grants to organizations in underserved counties that are less likely to receive support from private patrons.

On a per-capita basis, more rural states such as Vermont, Wyoming, and the Dakotas are among the biggest beneficiaries from the NEA, while California—where privately funded institutions such as the $140 million Broad Museum in Los Angeles abound—falls toward the bottom of the list.

Jennifer Hicks, the director of the Spokane Symphony in Washington, said NEA funding is essential for symphony programs such as Music Innovates, which brings musicians to low-income schools such as Holmes Elementary (where the school breakfast program for poor students is also at risk) for instruction four days per week. The money helps train musicians to work patiently with students who have dealt with the traumas that come with poverty and incarcerated family members.

“These kids are getting incredible instruction through this grant,” said Hicks. “It helps their brain development, helping them feel they have a valuable skill, and a sense of belonging.”

In addition to education, Hicks says NEA-funded programs help build bridges between remote communities. Just yesterday, the symphony traveled to Rathdrum, Idaho for a concert with children from the Nez Perce Native American tribe, who have been studying the history of music. (The program started with a singalong of Ode to Joy and ended with the theme from Star Wars.)

The halo effect

Hicks said that NEA grants came with a meaningful “stamp of endorsement”—a feeling echoed by Karen Rolston, the volunteer artistic director of the East Valley Children’s Theater, in Mesa, Arizona.

“We have gotten other grants where they ask, ‘Who have you gotten money from in the last year?'” said Rolston. “It’s kind of a feather in our cap to have those [federal] grants. It does seem to make a difference.”

East Valley Children’s Theater (EVCT) offers camps, classes, school outreach, and coaching for kids between the ages of five and 16, and puts on four productions per year. Tickets cost between $11-15, and grants help to subsidize the fees and scholarships for programming.

The theater’s total budget is about $200,000. In 2016, EVCT received an NEA grant of $10,000, along with a $10,000 matching grant—$20,000 total to invest in a mobile-friendly website, social media outreach, and marketing to serve a target audience online. At present, EVCT has an application pending for a new NEA grant to help fund an educational component for its annual play-writing contest, which would bring the winning playwright into schools to work with students.

What now?

“Oh my word,” said Rolston, upon learning that Trump proposed to eliminate the NEA entirely. “Thank you, President Trump. Eliminate it. Oh my goodness.”

Rolston said the theater’s board would meet to discuss their plans. Although she dislikes the idea of raising program fees, it might be the only way to make up for lost funds.

“I’m just really disappointed,” she said. “I know we have to have defense, we have to have education, we have to have all these other things – I think supporting the arts is a very important aspect of what the government should do.”

“I have been afraid this would happen,” said Hicks, still buzzing from yesterday’s symphony performance, and preparing for another. “We’ll have a hole in the budget. We’re just going to have to scramble … We’re not going to close our doors.”

President Trump’s budget blueprint is likely to face stiff opposition in Congress, and some are already calling it dead on arrival. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, told the Washington Post that eliminating the NEA would be a “huge and irresponsible mistake.” And some in Trump’s own party were similarly skeptical.

“A budget document is merely a blueprint. It does not appropriate any funding at all,” Republican New Jersey Representative Leonard Lance told the Post. As co-chairman of both the Congressional Arts Caucus and the Congressional Humanities Caucus, he said, “I will be working as hard as I can, internally and publicly, to make sure these programs are funded. All of my peers have arts venues in their districts. This affects all states and all congressional districts.”

“It’s definitely a blow,” said Hicks, of the potential loss of the NEA. “It also says what we value as a culture. It says what matters to us.”

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