The Case for the National Endowment for the Arts

On March 13, 2017, the White House released its first annual budget, called the “America First” budget by the Trump administration, on their website, and you can find it here. The President’s budget is far from the final draft of the budget for the coming fiscal year. The budget has to go through the arduous appropriations process in the House of Representatives, where it will be subject to intense scrutiny by Democrats and the policy goals of the House Republican leadership. However, as any student of public policy will tell you, a President’s budget is a statement of priorities, and one of the most infamous choices made by President Trump’s budget is the elimination of funding for the National Endowment for the Arts or NEA.

First, some background. The NEA was created under President Lyndon Johnson as a key part of his Great Society program along with the related National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, which was signed on September 29, 1965. The bill was the culmination of a push for a nationally-funded arts foundation that began in 1963, and was most strongly advocated for by Johnson’s Vice President and noted liberal Hubert Humphrey. The signing ceremony was hosted by Humphrey in the White House Rose Garden, and attended by the likes of Gregory Peck, Ansel Adams, Ralph Ellison, Walter Gropius, and Paul Mellon. In the intervening fifty-two years since its foundation, the NEA has given out upwards of 130,000 grants for the arts, upward of $5 billion in federal funds. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Glenn Seaborg testified to the Senate endorsing the foundation of the NEA and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities or NEH, saying “But what course do we take? This is the question that no computer can answer.”

Fast forward to 2017, where the President and the Vice President have a very different relationship with the arts community than Johnson did. President Trump famously feuded with Meryl Streep in January after she denounced his mocking of a disabled reporter at the 74th Golden Globe Awards ceremony, which was watched by 20 million people. On November 18, 2016 while attending a performance of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, noted for its purposefully multicultural cast, Mike Pence was met with an impromptu speech from the cast which asked the incoming administration to openly defend the various minority communities that may have felt targeted by the Trump campaign. Not only this, but Donald Trump has made his political career denouncing coastal elites, and at the forefront of these remarks have been the famous actors, actresses, and thespians who represent a very diverse and inclusive community that feels threatened by the policies of the Trump administration. And cutting the NEA and the NEH from their proposed budget isn’t doing much to heal these wounds.

In an editorial from this April 2017, National Review editor and Fox News contributor Deroy Murdock professed his support for the elimination of the NEA and NEH. Murdock in particular points to the idea that the United States was never severely lacking in culture prior to 1965, pointing to the wonderful films being made in Hollywood like Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, and On the Waterfront, as well as beloved musicals like West Side Story and Porgy and Bess. Murdock does little to address how small of a place in the federal budget the NEA and the NEH are, and instead calls for what is essentially the privatization of all arts funding. Murdock says that Democrats should stop “whining” about the elimination of these programs, and instead work with Trump on tax cuts that would allow America’s rich elites to privately fund the arts themselves. Murdock specifically discusses the Miriam Foundation, a private arts fund created by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in the memory of his mother. Wealthy philanthropist like Mr. Weinstein aside, these kinds of claims miss the point of the National Endowment for the Arts altogether.

What some people misunderstand about the NEA is that it’s focus isn’t on funding large, expensive, and wasteful art exhibits in America’s cultural capitals of New York City and Los Angeles. 65% of NEA grants go to small and medium-sized organizations which provides arts and artistic experiences for America’s small cities and interior towns. Very little of the funding goes to “coastal elites,” and in fact 40% of NEA-supported activities take place in high-poverty neighborhoods where young children would likely never get the kinds of creative and enriching activities that they would without the NEA. The purpose of the NEA has never been to cater to the cities and those areas where there is an abundance of arts funding and establishments. The purpose of the NEA has been and continues to be to bring fulfilling artistic experiences to those who do not have access to them in America’s impoverished and rural areas, contrary to Mr. Murdock’s editorial.

A surprising supporter of this position is former Governor of Arkansas and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, an ardent Trump supporter. An amateur musician himself, Mr. Huckabee elucidated his reasons for supporting the NEA, which not only makes up .004% of the federal budget, as Huckabee says, as well as statistical findings like that participation in the arts has benefits for students’ SAT scores, in addition to their math and spatial reasoning. Huckabee also drew on a recent article from The Hill, and discusses how entertainment and the arts is a $730 billion industry in the United States, or 4.2% of the US’ GDP and generating a $30 billion export surplus, which should be important for an administration with its priorities in reducing America’s trade deficit. Huckabee also notes that a 1990s reform of the NEA that focuses 40% of NEA funding on grants to states which the states match and help to relocate the funds to local communities. Additionally, the NEA currently receives $148 million in funding and nonprofit arts alone make $9.6 billion, a 65-fold increase, proving that government-funded arts make quite a nice profit.

Thus the NEA is far from a program that specifically benefits coastal elites. In fact, the National Endowment for the Arts is part of preparing students for a future in one of America’s most vital industries and making it a culturally and economically dominant nation. Huckabee referenced the bipartisan support historically for the NEA, which was founded by Lyndon Johnson, and expanded by Presidents Nixon and Reagan. To quote a nonpartisan with a love for the arts, they are “essential to the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life,” and “have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.” Any other artist would tell you the same thing.