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Anxiety over Trump's arts budget cuts

Rick Fulker
March 3, 2017

Public broadcasting and the arts in the US could dramatically change if President Donald Trump's budget proposal is enacted by Congress.

Image: picture-alliance/United Archives

As announced on Thursday, the budget that President Trump will submit to Congress proposes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and a number of other federal agencies. In a statement published on the NEA website, chairperson Jane Chu announced, "We are disappointed because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities in the nation. We expect this news to be an active topic of discussion among individuals and organizations that advocate for the arts."

The products of NEA and NEH support for arts and the humanities are myriad: Ken Burns' iconic TV documentary "The Civil War," the Sundance Film Festival, tours of jazz musicians and Shakespeare performers, a national competition of poetry recitation by teenagers and art therapy for traumatized war veterans.

Among the more controversial projects were Robert Mapplethorpe, the late photographer famous for his iconic images of flowers and male genitalia; Andres Serrano's crucifix immersed in urine, "Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays" and "Doggie Hamlet," combining dance and theater in a Vermont field with dogs and sheep.

All these artists, projects and presentations have received support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the US and are among 63,000 grant recipients since the agency was founded in 1965.

While conservatives view the agency as the work of cultural elites using taxpayers' money to promote a liberal agenda, arts advocates have described NEA grants as "the golden penny" and a catalyst for public and private arts funding in the US.

On the chopping block

The NEA and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), are now candidates for elimination under the Trump administration. The announced budget proposal would also axe the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) - which funds PBS, creator of the children's program "Sesame Street," known around the world.

Such possibilities were underscored by the appointment of Paul Winfree as the administration's director of budget policy. Winfree is an economist from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which put out a budget blueprint last year that included axing these and six other federal agencies.

Altogether, the combined savings of $741 million (about 702 million euros) - $148 million each for the NEA and the NEH, $445 million for the CPB - would comprise only a tiny fraction of the roughly $4 trillion budget for the current year and would do little to offset the proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending.  

"News headlines continue to fuel concerns," said Kelly Barsdate, chief program and planning officer of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, in an interview with DW.

While public funding of arts and culture in the US is far less than in European countries, the elimination of the NEA, said Barsdate, "could have a chilling effect. Every $1 grant leverages over $9 in other matching funds from local and regional governments, corporations and private citizens. The NEA sends a signal. It has a leadership function."

The Civil War PBS Serie
A standard-setting documentary: the PBS series "The Civil War"Image: PBS

At a cost of 46 cents per capita, less than the price of a postage stamp, the NEA is not a major budget item. While the agency doesn't fund individual artists directly, it supports local arts councils that distribute grants for entities such as Project Step, which gives lessons in classical string instruments to minority students.

The NEA also underwrites the Military Healing Arts Partnership, an arts therapy program that helps service members overcome war trauma and reintegrate into civilian life.

Long a divisive issue

"Federal art grants should be eliminated altogether, and it's not necessarily due to the budgetary savings that can be had there," Heritage Foundation economist Romina Boccia is quoted as saying on the foundation's website. "We should have separation of the federal government and the arts just like we have a separation of church and state."

Believing that if an artist can't succeed in the free market his or her work must not be good, the Heritage Foundation has called NEA funding "welfare for cultural elitists." It observes on its website that while a total of $5 billion has been dispensed in the 52 years since the founding of the NEA, private and corporate donations to the arts in the year 2014 alone amounted to $18 billion - and that those resources suffice for a lively arts scene.

The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies takes a different view. "Rural areas and low income communities would be hit especially hard," said Barsdate.

Headquarters of National Public Radio in Washington
National Public Radio is based in Washington, DCImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/C. Dharapak

Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, points to the overall economic benefit of arts activities. Lynch's non-profit organization "documented at minimum $22.3 billion going back in tax revenues across the local, state and national levels of government," said Barsdate.

"There is always a debate, but there has been agreement among Republicans and Democrats that funding for the arts is a good thing, and it has been kept in place," said Lynch, who has been pre-emptively mobilizing 5,000 local councils, agencies and financial backers and hundreds of thousands of citizens to flood members of Congress with calls on behalf of retaining arts funding.

Public broadcasting too

A proposed privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could have an even greater impact on cultural life in the US. Private donations are substantial here, funding 40 percent of the budgets of television stations in the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and 60 percent with public radio stations, many of them National Public Radio (NPR) affiliates.

But with some of the smaller stations, CPB funds are existentially important. The corporation said that dozens of stations rely on the federal money for 40 percent or more of their operating revenues.

Here, too, there has been grassroots resistance, notably an initiative named "Protect My Public Media," which launched a new outreach effort last month. "People aren’t panicking, but they are preparing," said Deanna Mackey, executive director of the Major Market Group, which represents PBS member stations in the largest US television markets.

USA Trump International Hotel - Old Post Office
The Old Post Office, formerly home to the NEA and the NEH, is now under new ownership as a Trump hotelImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/C. May

Activists on behalf of public funding of arts and media recall the era of the "Contract With America" of Newt Gingrich, elected speaker of the House of Representatives in 1994. After legislation had been proposed to eliminate the very agencies that are on the chopping block this time, the CPB's supporters took Big Bird and Kermit the Frog to Capitol Hill to protest - with apparent success, as the programs were preserved. That strategy would not work currently, however; Sesame Street has meanwhile moved from public to commercial TV.

However Congress decides, one change is already in effect. Ironically - and perhaps symbolically - the former headquarters of the NEA and NEH, the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, are now a hotel. It was renovated at a cost of $200 million, a higher sum than the yearly budgets of either agency. Its new owner: Donald Trump.

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