The arts are a time-honored scapegoat for crusaders against big-government frivolity, and federal funding for arts-related agencies has always been relatively minuscule, considering the government’s massive expenditures on things like the military. But even those paltry resources could be totally erased under Trump’s budget, which would funnel about $54 billion into the Pentagon’s coffers at the expense of massively slashing “discretionary” social spending.
Of the proposed nearly $1 billion cut, more than half would be slashed from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and about a third from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a sister agency that supports education and public-art programs.
In a statement of opposition to Congress, co-signed by progressive cultural and media groups (including The Nation), PEN America pointed out that given what a tiny fraction of the budget the planned cuts would save, the cuts should be seen “as part of an intensive campaign to delegitimize artists and intellectuals whose skepticism and provocations could threaten the Trump agenda.”
James Tager, free expression programs manager for PEN America, argues that with their constant ridiculing and vilification of so-called “cultural elites,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and other fiscal hawks “seem more comfortable attacking a distorted and largely made-up picture of what the NEA does and who it serves, than in actually examining the NEA’s work with American communities.”
Though elite artists bank on private-sector sponsors rather than government (which the right cites as a reason to eliminate the NEA), federal funds have their deepest impact in the least-visible cultural communities. So the NEA’s bottom line may be small compared to the whole federal budget, but that only underscores its dramatic multiplier effect as a lifeline for underrepresented voices from across racial, socioeconomic, and gender divides.
The NEA’s bread and butter lies in local cultural initiatives, with targeted grants to, for example, invest seed money in classical-music programs for urban youth, or developing art-therapy courses in prisons. These are often grassroots projects with the potential to become long-term mainstays of their communities, or to scale up their work to become nationally sustainable, but federal agencies are a critical source for that grant funding needed for the “last mile.”
At a time when elite galleries and critical circles have made the high-art world inaccessible to poorer and emerging artists, there’s a powerful, but immeasurable, ripple effect when state funding is choked off, especially in marginalized communities that see little government presence in their everyday cultural life.
According to Kate Shindle, president of actors’ union Actors’ Equity, the NEA’s tradition of supporting emerging communities of underrepresented artists, which have less commercial market value, have the most to lose under Trump’s budget axe: “Women artists, artists of color, immigrant artists, artists with disabilities will be hard-hit. This is a tragedy because these groups have stories that should be told.”
Arlene Goldbard of the arts-advocacy group US Department of Arts and Culture, notes that “public support has been extra-critical for artists and groups who don’t have access to the wealthy donors that are the mainstay of the red-carpet arts…. The NEA’s imprimatur helps to attract other funding and attention…it asserts that culture is a public good; and it highlights the public benefit of cultural investment.”
One project that benefits from NEA funding is the Philadelphia Village of Arts and Humanities, which used the federal support to incubate homegrown ventures for local cultural development. The initiative helped spawn the People’s Paper Co-op, a think tank and art workshop that helps formerly incarcerated individuals develop “works of art that connect the voices and visions of those in reentry with those in power.”
The Sugar Hill “placemaking” project in Detroit seeks to reincarnate a local arts economy that once served as an integrated seedbed for black musicians; the new version employs urban terraforming and democratic community-led planning programs to rebuild the arts ecosystem.
Another arts-driven development program in Montgomery, New York aims to “create connections between artists and the local agricultural community,” by integrating the rural economy, long an inspiration for visual artists, into a development plan for cultural tourism that also sustains regional farm production. While this Hudson Valley cultural landscape can’t compare to New York City’s, the collaborative community planning initiative has innovated a new kind of place-based creative sanctuary by weaving local fields into the art scene’s canvas.
In Santo Domingo, New Mexico, an NEA-funded program to foster indigenous arts helped launch a community walk linking tribal sites across the area. In blending political mobilization with celebration of cultural survival, the walk fostered a collective healing process and created a vital interface between marginalized peoples and government agencies historically viewed as alien and hostile.
Once upon a time, the arts were a federal priority—Roosevelt’s New Deal established massive employment programs to rescue impoverished creative workers from the Great Depression. Then, as now, the projects could have been dismissed as mediocre make-work or snobbish“vanity projects. But either way, a century on, we now know how important those initiatives were. Not because they singularly rejuvenated the economy (though it nurtured countless artists and local institutions and launched media-arts infrastructures in isolated regions) or because it launched thousands of celebrity careers (though it buoyed the genius of Zora Neale Hurston and Orson Welles), but because they sealed the social contract between cultural communities and the civic sphere.
Publicly supported artwork fuses the power of social imagination and democracy. No wonder the reality-TV-star-turned-statesman in the Oval Office views the tiny arts budget as a threat: Free expression is the one thing that can upstage him.