A published report that members of the Trump administration are considering sweeping budget cuts that include eliminating cultural agencies have left some arts leaders with a strong feeling of deja vu.
The report in The Hill notes staff members have been meeting with their White House peers to discuss a spending plan that would seek major cuts to the departments of Commerce, Transportation, Justice and State, cutting $10.5 trillion over 10 years.
Eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities would cut $296 million from the federal government’s almost $4 trillion budget, saving taxpayers little but sending a symbolic message about the importance of small government. The report also said the incoming administration is considering privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
“These are old ideas, some more than a decade old,” said Americans for the Arts president and CEO Robert Lynch. “We take it seriously, but there’s a budget process and a lot of points of intersection.”
U.S. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY), co-chair of the congressional Arts Caucus, said proposals to eliminate the independent agencies don’t make fiscal sense.
“Every dollar the NEA spends we get back $9 or $10 to the Treasury,” she said. “It’s penny wise and pound foolish.”
Critics don’t realize the important work the NEA does with students and with veterans, Slaughter said, citing as an example the NEA’s Military Healing Arts Network, which brings arts to Walter Reed. “These new treatments have discovered that they respond to music and yoga and painting. We help give them back their lives, as best we can. It’s priceless and it doesn’t cost very much.”
Lynch and Slaughter said supporters need to make the case that the cultural agencies aren’t the same as they were when these attacks were first launched.
“The NEA is different today. It does work for veterans and the military, benefits the economy and job development and community development,” he said. President Ronald Reagan thought eliminating the cultural agencies was worth considering, but he changed his mind, becoming a staunch advocate. “A number of years later, the Gingrich Congress wanted them eliminated. In both cases, Republicans turned it back.”
The NEA provides grants to arts organizations, education programs and community initiatives in all disciplines and in communities across the country. It is currently led by Chairwoman Jane Chu, and its 2016 budget was $148 million. In an email, a spokeswoman said the agency “is not speculating on what policies or decisions the new administration may or may not choose to prioritize or pursue.”
The NEH supports the humanities and history through grants to authors, museums libraries and a host of other organizations. Like the NEA, it was founded in 1965 and its 2016 budget was $148 million. “We are not going to speculate on the policies or priorities of the new administration,” a spokeswoman said.
Last March, then-candidate Donald Trump responded to a series of questions from The Washington Post about arts and culture, including whether the federal government should fund art. His answer was simple: “The Congress, as representatives of the people, make the determination as to what the spending priorities ought to be.” He went on to praise the liberal arts education he received. “Critical thinking skills, the ability to read, write and do basic math are still the keys to economic success. A holistic education that includes literature and the arts is just as critical to creating good citizens,” he said.
The arts community needs to share the details of the successes of the cultural agencies, as well as their economic muscle, Lynch said. In 2013, the cultural sector was a $704 billion industry, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. It contributed more than 4 percent to the economy, a segment larger than tourism.
“We need to put these facts in front of the decision makers,” Lynch said.
While their funding is a tiny percentage of the federal budget, the cultural agencies provide much-needed support and their elimination would be devastating, especially rural states. Ginnie Lupi, director of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, said her state relies to NEA funding to increase access to arts and culture strengthen arts education and bolster the economy.
“Arts and culture have an over $210 million annual impact in New Hampshire, partly due to federal funds our state arts agency distributes in grants,” Lupi said.
Slaughter said the cultural sector knows it has mobilize again. “I remember (the call) to get rid of Big Bird. That didn’t work,” she said, referring to earlier attempts to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an agency with a $445 million budget. “We have a great arts caucus in the House, and we’ve beaten back some of these things before. We need to be on the alert.”