National Endowment for the Arts: Once Again Fighting For Its Life

The latest bit of disturbing news to come from Donald Trump’s White House is that his proposed budget for next year eliminates the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

For those of you unfamiliar with this agency, let me give you a brief overview…

The NEA was created by an act of the U.S. Congress in 1965. It is an independent agency set up to support artistic excellence and public outreach for the arts.

The disciplines supported by the NEA include visual arts, media, design, music, dance, theater, creative writing, art education and museum education. It also helps support state and local art communities and agencies.

In other words the NEA touches the full spectrum of art activity throughout the United States. And it does it in every geographical region – east, west, north, south, urban and rural.

What’s equally impressive is the fact that it does it all cheaply – 47 cents per American citizen per year. As of 2017 the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is approximately $150 million, or .0004% of the total budget of the United States.

During its almost 60 year history the NEA has awarded over 140,000 grants. Most of those grants have been to small, nonprofit organizations that are required to match the funds with local contributions. An NEA grant is really seed money to help a group leverage additional funds.

Some of the programs receiving NEA grant money include:

The NEA Shakespeare program that brings professional theater to small and midsize communities.

The Poetry Out Loud program that promotes a national poetry recitation contest among high school students.

The NEA Jazz Master tour bringing musicians to local festivals and classrooms.

The NEA National Heritage Fellowships that honor folk artists and performers.

Previous recipients of NEA support include the Vietnam War Memorial Committee and the Sundance Film Festival

These are merely a few examples of the “big” programs that have received help from the NEA. The vast majority are smaller, local, one time applications such as:

The Timpanogas Symphony Orchestra of American Fork, Utah

The International Storytelling Association of Jonesborough, Tennessee

The Sesquehanna Folk Music Society of New Cumberland, Pennsylvania

The Ozark Foothills Filmfest in Locust Grove, Arkansas

In addition to providing funds for art activities the NEA also administers the National Medal of Arts awards given each year by the President. A few of the past recipients in visual arts are Ann Hamilton, John Baldessari, James Turrell, Martin Puryear, Frank Stella and Maya Lin. Popular performers include Johnny Cash, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Bob Dylan and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Another program that the NEA administers is the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program. This program is essentially an insurance policy for expensive artworks that are loaned to museums for special exhibitions – exhibitions that often travel to multiple museums around the country. Without this program it would be impossible for U.S. museums to mount shows that temporarily borrow famous artworks, objects that are often valued at tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Think about the last museum exhibition you saw that included a French Impressionist painting or ancient Egyptian artifacts.

So what’s not to like about the National Endowment for the Arts?

Johnny Cash and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? The Vietnam War Memorial and the Ozark Foothills Filmfest? What could be more American?

Why is this tiny Federal agency that does so much good for so many people being targeted for elimination?

Well, unfortunately conservative politicians and fundamentalist religious leaders just hate it. They have tried time and time again to eliminate the NEA. Some of them say they oppose “big government” and see this agency as excessive. Others take exception to the art and/or artists who receive funding or recognition. Some of them see the agency as a favorite program of elitist big city liberals and that alone is enough to turn them against it. And some of them just don’t think government and esthetics should mix.

To be totally fair I must acknowledge that in the late 1980s and early 90s the NEA awarded a few grants to individual artists whose work infuriated right wing politicians and religious groups. The firestorm of controversies from that time resulted in drastic budget cuts for the NEA and lots of calls for its elimination. A consequence of this tense period was the elimination of the Individual Artist Fellowship program.

But that was a long time ago and the NEA paid a significant price in order to move forward.

Now, with hardline Republicans in charge of Congress and a certifiably insane person as President, the NEA faces yet another battle for its existence.

As with most of their pet projects, the legislators who support this cut appear to have given very little thought to what it will mean for the country when we lose something as valuable as the NEA.

For them political ideology is more important than facts.

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