A community orchestra performance, a new work from an emerging playwright, art therapy for a returning veteran, local library classes in Braille, free standardized-test preparation, and Bert and Ernie. Thousands of such programs could be gutted under President Trump’s proposed budget.
Although the budgets of the four organizations slated for elimination are negligible as a percentage of the larger federal budget, they play a vital role in a cultural economy built on a system of federal stimulus. Federal dollars are used to leverage state, local and private funding that supports a complex network of arts organizations, educational entities, museums, libraries and public broadcasting affiliates.
For decades, arts and cultural leaders have fought regular battles to maintain federal funding, and they now find themselves part of a larger, unprecedented attempt to dismantle the federal government’s role in American life. As they struggle to explain why they deserve federal dollars, other federal departments and agencies are fighting for their share, which in turn could put increased strain on philanthropic funding for a large range of social services, including health care and education.
The president’s budget would eliminate the NEA’s $148 million budget, the NEH’s $148 million budget and the CPB’s $445 million budget, as well as $230 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which supports libraries and museums across the country. Additional cuts could affect the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art.
“The idea that civil society is going to step in and take up all these shortfalls is far-fetched,” said Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN, an organization of writers and editors that focuses on free expression. PEN has organized a petition with more than 200,000 signatures calling for the preservation of the NEA and NEH.
Not all cultural sectors would be equally hard hit, at least not initially. But all of them would be forced to rethink how to survive, and what they would be able to preserve of their fundamental mission.
“The Corporation for Public Broadcasting money is actually crucial to keeping stations alive,” said Patricia Aufderheide, founder of the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University. “That is what pays for the electric bill, that is what pays for upgrades in the equipment. Without that money, I think there are very few stations that are going to operate purely on donations.”
Aufderheide sits on the board of the Independent Television Service, which was created by Congress to produce and distribute documentaries for public television stations, including the critically esteemed “Independent Lens” series. Aufderheide said the cuts would significantly harm the independent programming that gives voice to marginalized or minority communities without access to other funding or broadcast platforms.
Robert Lynch, head of Americans for the Arts, an organization that was instrumental in helping to create the NEA more than 50 years ago, worries about small arts groups that face a daily struggle to stay afloat. His group regularly researches the state of the arts economy and has found that many groups operate at the edge of solvency. In 2013, for example, 42 percent of nonprofit arts groups operated at a loss.
“There are a few arts organizations at the top that are very, very stable, but most of them are struggling every day,” Lynch said. “They are not bottom-line driven; they are mission driven, trying to do something good, something for the public.” Cuts, he said, might soon be felt by smaller groups. “Any interruption in that fragile ecosystem has an effect.”
Over the years, the federal government’s cultural funders have become increasingly horizontal, spreading funds widely throughout all 50 states. “The NEA is the only funder in the country that makes arts grants in every congressional district,” said Marc Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America, a national service group. That outreach has traditionally helped the agency maintain support in Congress across party lines, and it has been a powerful incentive for states to maintain their own arts agencies.
Last year, the NEA sent $47 million to 50 states and five jurisdictions, funds that helped to leverage $368 million from state governments. Together, those funds were distributed through 24,000 grants, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA).
“The NEA doesn’t tell states what they have to do with [the funds]. The NEA says these are for your state priorities, and that makes them uniquely powerful,” said Kelly Barsdate, chief program and planning officer at the NASAA. “It’s a true model of how the federal government can work in effective concert with the states.”
Those state grants are crucial to arts organizations, including those that help young actors get their first roles and young writers develop their voices, said Edgar Dobie, executive director of Washington’s Arena Stage, which has been awarded grants of $30,000 to $50,000 in recent years.
“It’s the R&D the field needs,” Dobie said. “It’s so shortsighted to say it’s not as important as a new helicopter.”
Although all states would suffer under the proposed budget, poor and rural communities would be hardest hit, according to the NASAA. About 25 percent of NEA block-grant funds go to rural communities and 54 percent to low-income areas.
“We are gravely concerned about the impact on rural areas, low-income areas, schoolchildren, seniors and veterans,” Barsdate said.
The loss of NEA funding would cripple Vermont’s Poetry Out Loud competition, a statewide poetry recitation program that involves 5,500 students, about 25 percent of Vermont high-schoolers. The finals are broadcast on public television, said Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, and the winner goes on to the national competition.
“More students participate than play organized high school football,” Aldrich said, adding that NEA funds account for 45 percent of the arts council’s budget. “This program cuts across all ethnic, socio-economic and religious lines, which is where the arts strength lies.”
Trump’s proposal will meet stiff — and bipartisan — opposition in Congress. If the president’s goal is the wholesale elimination of these agencies, he will need Congress to repeal the legislation that created them.
“A budget document is merely a blueprint. It does not appropriate any funding at all,” said Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), co-chairman of both the Congressional Arts Caucus and the Congressional Humanities Caucus. “I will be working as hard as I can, internally and publicly, to make sure these programs are funded. All of my peers have arts venues in their districts. This affects all states and all congressional districts.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who was one of 24 lawmakers who wrote to Trump last month in support of the cultural agencies, said the budget proposal is a “huge and irresponsible mistake” that would have widespread consequences. She vowed to fight the cuts.
The NEA and NEH, she said, “make it so parents and teachers who don’t live in big cities or don’t have the most resources can still take their children to learn from and be inspired by history museums, art exhibits, and music and theater performances.
“Congress must look out for the millions of American families that can’t always travel to big cities to visit a museum when they want to learn about art and history.”
It is difficult to compare total arts spending in the United States to that of other advanced nations, given the complexity of the federal budget and the number of programs that might be considered arts-related (including military bands and educational efforts). But per capita federal funding for the arts through the NEA is minuscule compared with that in such countries as Finland, France and Germany.
But the United States has a unique arts funding system that has proved effective in the past 52 years at growing the larger arts economy. NEA funds, for example, are predicated on matching funds from state arts agencies, a powerful incentive to states to keep local arts funding alive. That has helped spur the creation of state arts councils in all 50 states, as well as about 5,000 funding groups at the local level.