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Would cutting federal arts funding hurt American culture — or make it even stronger?

SHARE Would cutting federal arts funding hurt American culture — or make it even stronger?
This would be an economic nightmare for culture in America. – Marc Vogl, former Brown University visiting cultural heritage professor

President Donald Trump, in keeping with campaign promises to cut government spending, is putting together a plan that would slash $10.5 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade, according to The Hill.

Arts advocates are nervous about one area the Trump team reportedly has in its sights: eliminating federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and privatizing organizations like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which, among other things, helps support PBS and public radio). Both organizations declined to comment for this story.

But critics of such a proposal say cutting NEA funding would accomplish little in reducing overall spending — it would have eliminated $146 million in 2015, or 0.02 percent of the government's overall $3.9 trillion budget.


Aerial dancers with Project Bandaloop rehearse on the architecture of the Old Post Office Pavilion, home to the National Endowment for the Arts on May 9, 2012. Arts advocates are nervous about President Trump potentially eliminating federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. | Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

“Put another way, if you make $50,000 a year, spending the equivalent of what the government spends on these three programs would be like spending less than $10,” Philip Bump wrote for the Washington Post recently.

NEA supporters also contend that eliminating the funding wouldn't just shutter the agency's office in Washington, D.C. It would potentially subtract from or put an end to more than 30,000 musical, theater and dance performances, reading programs and more than 5,000 art exhibitions, which the NEA said in its 2015 annual report boasts an annual attendance of 33 million. Additional broadcasting of supported performances boosts that audience to 360 million.

“This would be an economic nightmare for culture in America,” said Marc Vogl, a San Francisco-based philanthropic consultant and former Brown University visiting cultural heritage professor. “If you start to knock out the federal and, later, state support structures for culture in America, it’s going to be the kids and families that go to museums, see performances with their schools, who have arts programs in their communities that are going to be left high and dry.”

Yet critics of government funding for the arts say the reported elimination of funds isn’t so much about balancing the budget as getting the government out of art altogether. They say the government funding actually inhibits America’s art scene and makes it less vibrant.


Trombone and trumpet player Trombone Shorty, right, mentors a group of middle school students from the Washington area during a student workshop in the White House on Oct. 14, 2015, in preparation of the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. | Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

“The public seem to conflate federal funding for the arts with societal support for the arts,” said Heritage Foundation economist Romina Boccia. “What you have instead are arts organizations that become dependent on the federal trough, and that’s not a good thing.”

The Hill's budget story said Trump's proposed cuts "hew closely to a blueprint published last year by the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that has helped staff the Trump transition."

Depending on who you ask, Trump’s proposed budget cuts could spell a slow-motion disaster for the arts or it could, as one Washington Post commentator put it, “make art great again.”

“On the one hand, this is a story about the NEA and protecting a small agency with big influence on culture in America,” Vogl said. “On the other, it’s not about that at all. This is about free speech and a system of support for thousands of artists and arts organizations working to make America a place we all want to live.”

‘Cronyism’ vs. symbolism

This wouldn't be the first time the government has eyed cutting its fiscal ties with the NEA. Boccia recalled when NEA came under fire during Ronald Reagan's presidency amid some controversial art exhibits funded in part by the NEA.

The most talked about example is Andres Serrano’s 1987 photo of a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine (the title of which is too vulgar to repeat here). The image was publicly displayed in New York and provoked outcry in Congress, the most vocal opponent being then Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who famously quipped, “Serrano is not an artist. He is a jerk.”


Children view a sculpture depicting the classic children's story "Make Way for Ducklings" at an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on Nov. 21, 2016. | Charles Krupa, Associated Press

The fallout from Serrano’s work has reverberated for decades and contributed to the NEA’s funding and staff being cut by 50 percent in 1995. In 2011, when a print of the photo was displayed in France, protesters quickly destroyed it.

The original was later sold at a 2014 Sotheby’s auction for $144,000, according to Artnet.

The Serrano saga is the result of what Boccia calls “cultural cronyism” — what emerges when interest groups and artists use the NEA to promote cultural shifts and particular viewpoints that she says diverge from general public opinion.

“Depending on who’s in charge of the administration, federal art funding allows them to promote a certain cultural agenda that does reflect the overall interests of the public, even though taxpayers pay for it,” Boccia said. “So you get scandals. These are the kinds of difficult conversations we face, all because the government is involved in this.”

Those who shake their heads at the past scandals or worry about federal spending, Vogl said, should consider what it would mean if the government no longer supported the arts in any tangible way, as it does now.


Ansel Adams' 1940 photograph "Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point, Winter, Yosemite National Park," is displayed at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta on Feb. 6, 2017. Arts advocates worry that cutting federal funding to the National Endowment for the Arts could potentially subtract from or put an end to more than 30,000 musical, theater and dance performances, and more than 5,000 art exhibitions. | David Goldman, Associated Press

“Every civilization values representing reality in other forms. Sometimes it’s political but it’s also reflection of culture,” Vogl said. “The federal government’s role in supporting the arts is one of the ways we walk the walk when it comes to exercising our constitutional rights to free speech, and if we abdicate that role, then we are acting hypocritically.”

‘The need is great’

If federal funding for the NEA is eliminated as proposed, Vogl and Boccia paint very different pictures of what that will mean for American art culture.

Boccia believes that removing government support will shift the funding focus to where most arts support already comes from — private philanthropy.

She also believes such a move would lead to the creation of art that better reflects the public’s values and ideas.

“Imagine a museum that has to raise funds from private donations alone — they have to be responsive to what people want to see. Under federal funding, they’re more responsive to what bureaucrats like,” Boccia said. “It takes the decision-making power away from the general public who should rightfully support and do support the arts.”

But Vogl’s scenario is a bit grimmer. In the wake of Trump’s surprise election victory, the market for private funding became more competitive among advocacy and special-interest groups seeking support for their causes that would push the arts down the priority list.

Until a budget is presented to Congress in March, Vogl says people concerned about the arts can do small things to support them — such as buy tickets to a local performance.

He worries people will forget what they’re living for if they forget to support the arts, or if public attitudes see the arts as elitist.

“One out of every six Americans is in a chorus. So if you think the arts are elitist or irrelevant, just go to church. Try going to a wedding without a musician,” Vogl said. “The central question is what makes life worth living? We need the necessities, but after that you try to experience moments of joy and understand the world better. That’s what art is all about.”