Money talks. If you want practical evidence of this, consider the Trump administration’s effort to eliminate the nation’s most effective supporter of the arts — The National Endowment for the Arts. Founded by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the NEA has supported excellence in the arts to the tune of several billion dollars. By 2008, the NEA had issued more than 128,000 grants to both new and established individual artists and groups in cities and small towns.
Not everyone loves the NEA. In 1996, Congress cut its annual funding by nearly half, to $99.5 million from $180 million in the wake of pressure from conservative groups who took issue with its funding of some controversial art and artists. The NEA’s budget has bobbled up and down since, and it’s now at about $150 million. Congressional leaders rejected the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate money for federal arts programs, providing a small increase as part of a bipartisan spending deal. The spending bill includes $150 million for the NEA.
A recent study of the economic role of the arts at the federal level shows that the arts and cultural sector contributed nearly $730 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014, about 4 percent of the U.S. economy for that year. That’s a pretty respectable yield on a budget of $150 million.
President Trump proposed eliminating all federal money for the NEA. Yet, “Americans fill the world with art and music.” he proudly said in his State of the Union address.
David L. Ulin, writing in the Los Angeles Times, noted, “And yet, his (Trump’s) insistence that support of arts and culture should not be a mission of the government tells us what he actually believes about the arts.”
Yes, it does.
Ulin continues: “Destroying the NEA would be deeply damaging to the creative culture of the country. The attempt to kill it reflects the false premise that federal support for culture is unnecessary, or even un-American, and that the arts are a legitimate battleground in the nation’s political wars. In 2016, for instance, the NEA directed only about 1 percent of its budget to individual artist and translation grants, $1.5 million. The rest went to support arts organizations and agencies in every state and every U. S. territory.
“As Kurt Vonnegut once observed, ‘participation in the arts — drawing, dancing, and all that — makes the soul grow. That’s why you engage in it. That’s how you grow a soul.’”
Ulin concludes: “The fact that such cuts are part of the president’s wish list reminds us of the administration’s antipathy toward everything it doesn’t value or understand.”
Jane Chu, the NEA’s director, has said that she will resign next month after four years heading the agency. A musician with degrees in piano, business and philanthropy, Chu was chief executive of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo., before being tapped by President Barack Obama to become the nation’s arts leader.
Whom will Trump choose to replace her? His pattern of appointments to important positions of leadership has shown us the quality of his judgment and his values, and it makes me anxious for the future of the arts in America.