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Why the NEA Matters (And Why We Can’t Let Trump Kill It)

on March 16, 2017, 7:00pm

The untold history of the arts is the history of its patrons. Most of Michelangelo’s famous works were funded by either Lorenzo de Medici or the Catholic Church. Shakespeare’s plays were attended and supported by Queen Elizabeth and King James, and his sensual sonnets were done on commission for two different patrons: a beautiful blonde man and a dark-skinned lady. Beethoven received an annual stipend from Archduke Rudolph, the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II, who used to pay the composer to write new tunes for his dinner parties.

The arts have usually required patronage of one sort or another,” says Dr. Michael Chemers, a theatre historian at the University of California, Santa Cruz. And if no patrons could be found? “If the artist were independently wealthy, they could continue to do their art. If the artist were commercially successful, they could continue to do their art so long as it was supported by market forces, which we have learned from history are not always interested in advancing discourses that include social justice, environmental activism, or political reform. If the artist is inhumanly persistent, they might survive. Otherwise, they will eventually give up and do what they must to live.”

Market forces changed for some artistic disciplines after the industrial revolution. At the end of the 19th century, for example, paintings were in high enough demand in France that the top 1% of French painters — say, Monet — could earn an income similar to a doctor or lawyer. In today’s globalized world, there’s enough interest in American film, television, and popular music to keep hundreds of thousands of artists employed. The people have became the patrons, but only for a few kinds of movies, a few types of television, and a few genres of music.

For almost every other type of American artist, their patron is the National Endowment for the Arts.

Now the NEA has come under fire, as President Trump has proposed a budget that cuts the organization entirely, along with the smaller National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In order to understand what this means, we must answer five important questions.

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01. What does the National Endowment for the Arts do?

There are two answers to this, one lofty and one literal. Literally, the NEA issues grants. From the NEA website: “Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is the largest national funder of nonprofit arts in the U.S. Annually, the NEA awards more than 2,200 grants and cooperative agreements exceeding $130 million, funding the arts in all 50 states and six U.S. jurisdictions, including urban and rural areas.”

All of the grants are viewable online: For instance, here are the most recent grants awarded to arts institutions in Chicago, Boise, Pittsburgh and Albuquerque. You can search for results in your own city here by simply typing in the city name and clicking “Display Results.” But suffice it to say, almost every museum, symphony orchestra, jazz ensemble, dance troupe, not-for-profit theater, opera, and educational arts organization depends on thousands of federal dollars to survive.

This is part of a broader attempt to use the arts as a means of improving American lives. As the NEA says, “Art works on individuals and communities to change, confront, challenge, and inspire us; to allow us to imagine and to aspire to something more.”

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02. That’s nice, but isn’t the United States in debt? Won’t cutting the NEA help?

The yearly budget for the NEA is less than $150 million dollars. The yearly spending of the United States is upwards of $4 trillion. That’s a savings of 0.00375%. That isn’t a solution; it’s a rounding error.

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03. What does Trump’s budget proposal actually mean?

Not as much as you might think, judging from the amount of publicity it’s getting. This is because setting a Federal budget is a long, complicated process, and the President has relatively little power to fund his agenda. From the National Priorities Project:

“There are five key steps in the federal budget process:

01. The President submits a budget request to Congress

02. The House and Senate pass budget resolutions

03. House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees “markup” appropriations bills

04. The House and Senate vote on appropriations bills and reconcile differences

05. The President signs each appropriations bill and the budget becomes law”

Think about it this way: The President proposes a budget, and this is similar to telling Congress he would like meatloaf for dinner. Now, Congress does all the grocery shopping and all of the cooking. If they serve him shepherd’s pie (or salad, or mac’n’cheese, or a single moldy slice of bread), all the President can do is refuse to eat it with a veto. He can send it back to Congress, but there’s no guarantee he’ll get what he wants next time, either. 

Obama’s final budget proposal included free community college, an expansion of Social Security, and half-a-trillion dollars of spending on improved highways and transportation. He sent it to Congress, and Congress funded none of those programs.

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04. So what is Congress going to do?

Look, even the smartest, most experienced political commentators have recently had a hard time predicting what’s going to happen, so who knows? Perhaps Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell will make saving the NEA a priority. Perhaps moderate Republicans or red-state Democrats will pull off some kind of unsavory vote trade (“I’ll vote for your wall but only if you save the NEA.”) Perhaps none of this matters; the budget is already getting severe pushback from Capitol Hill Republicans.

But Republicans control the Executive branch and both chambers of the Legislature, and with some notable exceptions (both Presidents George Bush), the Republican party has been opposed to the NEA since its inception in 1965. If the President and Congress both make this a priority, there’s really no way to stop them.

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05. What happens if the NEA is abolished?

The NEA would lose its funding no earlier than October 1st. Then, if your favorite things are superhero movies, Justin Bieber songs, and reruns of NCIS, congratulations! This won’t affect you at all, you sad, boring fuck. 

The largest institutions in the biggest cities will be hurt the least, because they tend to have more wealthy donors. But smaller organizations in big cities, and even big organizations in smaller communities, would be devastated. Expect widespread closings of museums, theaters, symphonies, school arts programs, dance centers, film festivals, and more.

This would also lead to a rather substantial increase in the unemployment rate, which is perhaps the best reason to be optimistic. Even if the damage were limited to New York, LA, and Chicago (and it wouldn’t be), no politician wants to be responsible for turning thousands of Americans out of work, especially for a measly savings of $150 million.

This story isn’t going away. This is only the beginning of a long, complicated process. We’ll keep you posted on new developments and what they mean for the broader American culture as the story unfolds.

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