National Endowment for the Arts: Well Worth Fighting For

Winston Churchill Quote on the ArtsI seldom use this forum as a soapbox for politics, but it is time to speak up.

I disagree with the majority of the cuts being proposed by this administration’s budget – cuts to to the State Department and the EPA, cuts to staffing, education, and to many of the services the elderly and lower income families rely on, such as Meals on Wheels and free school lunch programs. But because this is an arts-focused blog, I will focus on my concerns about eliminating of the National Endowment for the Arts. I also object to the defunding of the National Endowment for the Humanities and of PBS, but in this column, I’m going to focus on the NEA.

For those who think the National Endowment for the Arts is a program that was set up to support the interests of the “intellectual elite,” think again. It was actually set up for exactly the opposite reason. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched it to “Level the playing field” and make the Arts available to all, not just the wealthy. The program was founded to “nurture American creativity, to elevate the nation’s culture, and to sustain and preserve the country’s many artistic traditions.”· As The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott has written, “If you want to understand Johnson’s cultural agenda, you have to see it not as an appendage but integrally related to the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

For 20 years, federal arts funding was stable. When Ronald Reagan came to office and rewrote tax codes to favor the wealthy, the Arts found themselves under attack, which continues to this day. In 1995, under Clinton, the NEA budget and its staff was cut by 50%, “disproportionately affecting minority and disadvantaged communities that couldn’t turn to individual mega-donors or corporate foundations to fill the gap.”

Because the funding of this institution has been dramatically reduced over the years, and since private and corporate sponsors have often stepped in to pick up the pieces, some argue that their elimination would have little effect. That’s where they would be wrong, and here is why:

  1. The National Endowment for the Arts does what no other funder does, public or private: It provides funding to communities in all 50 states and five U.S. jurisdictions. The geographic, demographic, and income diversity among the NEA’s grant recipients is unmatched by any other U.S. funder.
  2. The NEA’s Challenge America program funds the Arts in underserved communities, whether limited by geography, ethnicity, economics, or disability. Nearly half of all NEA grants are given to institutions in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and more than half of their grantees are small arts organizations.
  3. Minority, disenfranchised, and rural communities rarely have access to wealthy millionaires and billionaires to cultivate as patron donors. Many of these arts organizations will disappear if the public-funding system disappears that helped them build capacity, gain cultural legitimacy, and become sustainable.
  4. The NEA offers what I call “trickle down” funding. Forty percent of the NEA’s grant-making funds are delivered at the local level through partnership agreements with 60 different state arts agencies and regional arts organizations.
  5.  One sole grant rarely underwrites an entire arts project or initiative. The NEA Grants are highly competitive, carefully vetted and funding must be matched from other sources. The reporting process is carefully scrutinized. The award of an NEA Grant establishes credibility, making it easier for an awardee to secure additional grants from other sources.
  6. Typical corporate and private funders disproportionately fund the largest, most successful Arts institutions, meaning that the work funded through these organizations reaches only a very tiny sector of the American population. The funding provided through the NEA helps “spread the wealth” of arts to a much broader audience.

If you’re a follower of this blog, you probably know why the Arts are important. But if you’re someone who stumbled on this post through social media and are wondering why I am making such a stink about the elimination of a government-funded organization with a budget of only $149 million of a $1.1 trillion budget (or to put it in perspective, about $10 of a family’s $50K income), I’ll touch upon a few reasons:

  1. Economic – The Arts are a major pillar of our nation’s culture and economy. In January 2015, the Bureau of Economic Analysis determined that the arts and cultural industries contribute $698 billion to our economy each year and support 4.7 million full-time jobs. For every one dollar the United States spends on federal arts initiatives, nine non-federal dollars are leveraged, generating roughly $600 million in matching support. That return is hard to beat.
  2. Social – The arts have been shown to help create community and foster cross-cultural understanding.
  3. Innovation – A foundation in Arts training is a cornerstone in the innovation that is all around us, from Arts and education, to science, business and beyond.
  4. Development – Learning to create art in any form generates significant cognitive, emotional and social benefits for all, but is particularly critical for children and youth.
  5. Communication– The creation of Art is a form of self-expression and communication.
  6. Universality – If you look around you, there is some form of art everywhere, from the coffee mug you drink from, to the photography you put on your wall, and from the clothing in which you dress to the car you drive. Look at countries where the arts are not supported, and you will find a land that is culturally barren. A country’s heritage is never enriched through the elimination of the Arts.
  7. Employment – As funding for the Arts decreases, and their are less opportunities to work and teach in the Arts, fewer people will pursue this career path. Again, this devaluing of the Arts will have long-term, wide-spread negative repercussions.

President Trump’s budget eliminates funditng for the National Endowment for the Arts, for the Humanities and for PBS in favor of increasing funding for the military. I am in Winston Churchill’s camp. There is a meme circulating that suggests when asked to cut Arts funding in favor of the war effort, he replied, “Then what are we fighting for?”  According to Snopes, which he actually said when asked to cut arts funding in favor of war efforts was,  “The Arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them. Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.”

So although the words were different, the sentiment was very similar.


P.S. Please note that the above statistics were derived from numerous sources, including from the National Endowment for the Arts, from the website of Louise Slaughter, from a national research study for American Orchestras, and from a number of other reputable sources.