Goodbye to the National Endowment for the Arts?

Naomi Adiv, Portland State University

Naomi Adiv is Assistant Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. She holds a PhD in Geography from the CUNY Graduate Center (New York City), and a Master’s degree in Community Development at UC-Davis, with a focus on Community Arts.

In the shadow of the truly egregious policies rolled out by the Trump administration in their first year in office (anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies, de-staffing the State Department into paralysis, shrinking national monuments, strangling the ACA), and a general tone of chaos surrounding the office of the presidency, a standing threat remains. That is: among other cuts, freezes and gag orders, the administration has vowed to defund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Here, I demonstrate how current political arguments around defunding the NEA are derived from a larger political model of dismantling the state apparatus, and purposely conflate fiscal and symbolic rationales in an attempt to influence cultural policy.

When the plan for cutting federal funding for culture was first announced, defenders of the NEA, NEH and CPB moved quickly, asking concerned Americans to sign this petition, call that office, and so forth. Those who are actively fighting the cuts note how the arts and humanities programs that are supported by these agencies enrich the lives of everyday Americans in rural and urban areas of all fifty states. Furthermore, defenders explain, myriad cultural stalwarts—from public libraries to local orchestras to public radio—are attached to these workhorse agencies, which themselves operate on shoestring budgets. Lately, the smallness of the NEA budget is taken as a unit of currency, as in: this [bomber, bureaucratic measure, security detail] is three times the NEA’s whole annual budget.

Fairly often, the appeal—stop cuts to arts and culture!—includes a graph or pie chart, demonstrating that the NEA receives an infinitesimal percentage of the Federal Budget. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) reports:

The $146 million budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) represents just 0.012% (about one one-hundredth of one percent) of federal discretionary spending. The NEA has sustained significant budget reductions. NEA appropriations have declined by $21.5 million (−13%) in the last three federal budgets.

The NASAA goes on to explain that even these meager funds create jobs, stimulate local economies and improve education. Put in these terms, the general argument is that if Americans only knew how valuable these organizations are—and how far-reaching—especially compared to the much bigger wastrels (i.e. Department of Defense or, in recent days, the president’s vacation spending), we would all be up in arms and we would have the good sense to join together to preserve them.

Others insist that the cuts are just a political proxy, such as in the case of CultureGRRL (Lee Rosenbaum) at ArtsJournal, who writes:

Unfortunately, whenever there’s a call to prune the budget, the NEA and NEH are low-hanging fruit. They’re worth more for their symbolic value—an expendable expense when politicians want to appear fiscally frugal—than they worth are [sic] for their negligible impact on the government’s gargantuan outlays.

And while I do not disagree with this sentiment, “symbolic value”—that is, symbolizing fiscal prudence—is not, in fact, the only logic under which these cuts are being made.

Indeed, in launching a defense of the NEA (and like organizations) that extols its efficacy as an economic engine, albeit one with deep cultural value, its defenders may be missing an opportunity to directly contest the arguments that the right is making about the NEA. The NEA’s opponents are not simply arguing that the dollars we spend are a bad spending choice; rather, they are revitalizing old culture war tropes, and then hiding behind absolutist claims about limited government. Thus, as artists, academics and community-level cultural workers rush to save these small organizational and funding homes—and, by proxy, their merit on the national stage—we should also consider how we arrived at the current assault.

When the NEA was founded in 1965 under the Johnson administration,[1] with a budget of 2.4 million, the legislation that brought it (and the accompanying National Endowment for the Humanities) into existence stated:

…the practice of art and the study of humanities requires constant dedication and devotion and that, while no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the federal government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.

As an additional part of the charter, the NEA was set up with peer review panels of respected artists to choose grants, “buffering grants from political oversight and emphasizing artistic freedom over democratic accountability” (Lewis and Brooks 2005:9). Monies appropriated by congress to funding the NEA increased throughout the 1960s and 1970s—largely under the leadership of Nancy Hanks—with its projects gaining in scope and prestige.

Figure 1: NEA funding 1966–2016. Source: NEA Annual Reports







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