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.”