Brent Reidy, Apollo - The NEA received $148 million in direct federal funding in 2016 – a vanishingly small 0.0038 per cent of the nation’s $3.9 trillion budget. The current funding level – equivalent to about a half-dollar per person per year – represents the lowest proportion of the federal budget since the NEA’s inception in 1966. As 40 per cent of the agency’s budget is re-granted directly to state arts agencies, the agency’s direct work relies on the remaining 60 per cent.
Despite the frequent rows, the NEA has survived. But this time may be different. While it would take about a dozen Congressional steps to extinguish the agency, the audacity of Trump’s make-believe national mandate combined with Republican control of both legislative houses could signal the death knell for the Arts Endowment once and for all, ending America’s 52-year commitment, albeit a tenuous one, to federal support for the arts.
What would the elimination of the NEA mean for the arts in the US? In terms of actual direct support, very little. Many foundations, other funding bodies, and individuals dole out more for the arts each year than the arts endowment: for example, New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs 2016 budget was $165 million, with additional funds dedicated for capital projects; philanthropist David Geffen’s $100 million gift to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2016 outstripped the NEA’s direct granting budget that year.
But the NEA has impact far exceeding its direct grants. As an important ‘imprimatur,’ an NEA grant can be leveraged to attract matching funds, and coordinates and leverages the arts as an essential resource in the work of other agencies. Crucially, the NEA also administers the government’s Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program, which facilitates international traveling art exhibitions. Many art museums that have robust international exchanges are more concerned about the prospect of this program’s elimination than they are about losing funding, which is often minimal.
Furthermore, eliminating the NEA could have a troubling domino effect. The action could well embolden lawmakers to target other forms of support for the arts, education and humanities. Trump’s plans also call for the elimination of funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Cuts to the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, and other institutions could realistically follow. The Department of Education, Department of Defense, and other agencies also have cultural programs which could be targeted. Beyond Washington DC, many states might reconsider their support of their own arts agencies, without the annual NEA budget allocations that encouraged their arts funding in the first place.
Most damaging would be a change to the tax policy that has, for a century now, made charitable donations to not-for-profit organizations tax-deductible. In 2014, Americans donated about $17 billion to arts and humanities causes; the related forgone tax revenue – which, in essence, can be regarded as indirect federal arts funding – dwarfs the NEA’s budget. Eliminating or reducing the tax deduction for charitable gifts to the arts is the equivalent of a doomsday scenario. While the chances of this may be slim, the possibility has been raised by members of Congress before (notably Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa) and now is the season of once unthinkable things coming to pass.
The symbolism of the NEA’s demise might have the largest impact. The arts endowment is a testament to the government’s conviction that the arts are a fundamental and essential part of our nation. According to critic Michael Brenson, many lawmakers fighting for the creation of the endowment in 1960s saw ‘the agency as proof that free expression was a fundamental American principle.’ In a speech given just weeks before his assassination, President Kennedy asserted that ‘if art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.’ Perhaps more than ever, Americans need this ‘form of truth.’ The abolition of the NEA would signal a wholesale rejection of these important ideals and the nation’s belief in the necessity of creative expression. The damage that would cause to the arts in the US and internationally is immeasurable.