“We didn’t know whether they would bring people in,” Carter said Tuesday of the incoming Biden administration. Three Biden appointees start at the agency on Wednesday, and that, she said, “was the catalyst” behind her decision to resign, effective the same day.
Ann Eilers, the agency’s deputy chairman of management and budget, will temporarily lead the agency, the Biden administration announced. The job would typically go to the senior deputy chairman, Tom Simplot, but he has also resigned, effective Wednesday.
In a letter to staff, Carter thanked them for their work and highlighted their collective accomplishments, including securing annual, if small, budget increases from Congress, bringing the funding to $167.5 million, up $5.25 million from last year and $17.5 million since President Trump took office. She also changed the way the agency talked about the arts, focusing on its contributions to local economies and to health and well-being.
Broadening support for the arts beyond the arts field tops the list of her accomplishments, Carter said.
“Building those coalitions. Understanding that the arts play such a crucial role in everyday life. That’s how you expand the arts, broaden the support for arts funding,” she said.
Carter’s letter noted that her agency was not listed on Sen. Rand Paul’s list of “wasteful public spending” projects for the past two years — a source of pride for the staff, she said — and that a House of Representatives’ amendment cutting the NEA budget received “the least number of votes in a decade.”
She didn’t note that Trump called for the elimination of the NEA and other cultural agencies in each of his four budget proposals — calls that Congress repeatedly rejected in bipartisan fashion. Asked about the difficulty of leading an agency that was repeatedly targeted for elimination, Carter said she focused on a statement made by candidate Trump that Congress determines arts funding.
“I took that to heart. I felt Congress was the audience,” she said. “I went all out to show members what we were doing and stayed in constant contact with the arts caucus.”
She acknowledged the need to bolster staff morale every winter after Trump’s budgets were unveiled. The first year, she said, she gathered the staff to explain the process.
“ ‘We’re 25 steps away from being eliminated. That’s a lot of steps away,’ ” she recalled saying. “The good news about our agency, because it is small, everyone believes in the mission. I hope they understood that I believe in the mission. I was going to do everything in my power to make sure the audience, Congress, and all these other coalitions understood the importance of arts and the agency.”
“There needs to be more funding for artists and arts organizations. Stabilizing the field should be priority number one,” she said. “Priority number two needs to be opening safely. Everyone wants to be back to work, back in school, in prisons, back onstage, doing what they love to do.” Earlier this month the agency released a report addressing these concerns.
“And I think, on top of that, there needs to be a proactive advertising campaign letting our citizens know these [organizations] are safe and it’s time to go back,” she said. “That’s down the road.”
Carter supports calls for the creation of a cabinet-level position for the arts, saying most countries, even smaller ones, have ministers of culture. “I feel like we should be on par with that. The reality is that art created in the United States goes across the world. You go to any country where English isn’t spoken and they know the words to American music. It is such a reflection of who we are,” she said.
Pam Breaux, president and chief executive of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, an organization that supports local arts agencies, described Carter as an “effective champion.”
Under her leadership, the agency’s budget grew and its programs are stronger than ever,” Breaux said in a statement. “I believe her legacy will lie in how she supported the arts community as it sustained considerable losses resulting from the pandemic. She quickly assembled her work-from-home team to make recovery grants available swiftly.”
Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy organization dedicated to supporting the NEA and other federal cultural agencies, offered thanks for Carter’s work, saying her leadership was important because it came “during a period when there were annual calls for the organization’s termination.”
“Mary Anne helped advance support for the arts by commissioning new research documenting the value of the arts to both the economy and to the public. She also created new programs for arts and healing, new partnerships with elected leaders at the state and local levels, and expedited covid-19 economic relief aid to arts organizations across the country,” retired Brig. Gen. Nolen Bivens, interim president and chief executive of Americans for the Arts and the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, said in a statement.
Carter is considering several ideas for her next job but said it was too soon to discuss them.