Government Funding of the Arts Rumored in Peril

Three federal government agencies have been targets in the culture wars for decades: the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Their funding is tiny by federal standards – about $148 million each for the NEA and NEH, and about $445 million for the CPB – but they have been viewed with suspicion and accused of leaning to the political left. By contrast, estimates the annual cost of security for the wife and 10-year-old son of Donald Trump, who have chosen to remain in Midtown Manhattan, is $50 – $60 million. Another measure of financial scale is provided by an MIT Technology Review estimate that Trump’s promised wall along the Mexican border will cost $38,000 million, more than fifty times as much as the combined budgets of the NEA, the NEH and the CPB.

The NEA in particular has been in the cross-hairs since a 1987 controversy that erupted when it was discovered several thousand dollars of government funding had been granted in New York to artist Andres Serrano for a project that included his work “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a Christian crucifix immersed in urine. Members of Congress at the time were infuriated, some threatening to defund the NEA entirely, and even 30 years later the notoriety of the incident remains a flashpoint for ideological objection to government funding of the arts.

Similar funding cuts were proposed as part of a campaign platform, the Contract with America, before the Republican Congressional sweep in the 1994 mid-term election. At the time, the possibility of eliminating PBS led to widely publicized opposition demonstrations and publicity stunts, having network stars such as Big Bird from Sesame Street and Kermit the Frog from The Muppet Show testify before Congress.

In the last fiscal year in Rhode Island, the NEA distributed $1,179,500 of which $744,500 (61%) went to the State Council for the Arts (RISCA) for further redistribution. NEH distributed $987,192 of which $605,030 (61%) went (in five separate grants) to the State Council on the Humanities for further redistribution. Nearly all direct grants were to well-known and fairly large non-profit educational organizations rather than to individual artists or art projects. NEA grants included $125,000 to the City of Providence (in two separate grants), $75,000 to Community Musicworks, $45,000 to Providence City Arts for Youth, Inc., $35,000 to Alliance of Artists Communities, $30,000 to DownCity Design, $30,000 to RiverzEdge Arts Project Inc., $25,000 to WaterFire Providence, $20,000 to Trinity Repertory Company, $15,000 to Rhode Island School of Design, $10,000 to New Urban Arts and $10.000 to Island Moving Company. NEH grants were even more concentrated on established non-profits, including $247,800 to the John Carter Brown Library, $50,000 to the Preservation Society of Newport County and $25,000 to the University of Rhode Island.

Rumors first surfaced before the inauguration in a January 19 report by The Hill, a specialist news organization covering Congress (that is, Capitol Hill): “The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely…. The proposed cuts hew closely to a blueprint published last year by the conservative Heritage Foundation, a think tank that has helped staff the Trump transition.” Proposed cuts substantially the same as the rumors were confirmed coming from the White House budget office a month later by The New York Times in a story on February 17.

The Heritage Foundation 180-page Blueprint for Balance makes clear that opposition to public funding of arts and humanities is more ideological than financial. Of the NEH, it said (p. 79): “Private individuals and organizations should be able to donate at their own discretion to humanities organizations and programs as they wish; government should not use its coercive power of taxation to compel taxpayers to support cultural organizations and activities.” Of the NEA, it said (p. 80): “Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for plays, paintings, pageants and scholarly journals, regardless of the works’ attraction or merit.” Of the CPB, it said (p. 86): “Without federal funding from the CPB, services such as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and NPR would operate like any other news or broadcasting source in the private sector… NPR and PBS should seek to find new sponsors, create new shows and find alternative ways to generate viewership without receiving taxpayer funding.”

Randall Rosenbaum, RISCA executive director, emphasized that despite press reports there has so far been no actual proposed NEA or NEH budget, so any discussion of significant cuts would be highly speculative. Explaining how his organization redistributes grants, he said that RISCA supports training teachers and artists to work in schools, health care centers and after-school programs, and works with the state Department of Education to support professional development of teachers in the arts. “We use federal funding to support and celebrate the art of diverse communities in Rhode Island, from our support of Native American Culture Week to Feria del Libro and the Providence Latin American Film Festival. Federal funds go to support apprenticeship program that place master artists with talented apprentices to preserve art forms as diverse as Native beadworking to Hmong tapestry art,” he said. “We try to ensure that federal funds get into low income neighborhoods and less populated areas of our state.”

David W. Piccerelli, president of WSBE Rhode Island PBS, likewise said, “President Trump has not yet formally announced his plans for the CPB and public media. The prudent course is to wait and see, to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” He noted that federal funding of public broadcasting amounts to only $1.35 per person per year nationally. “We do accept about $700,000 annually from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the loss of which would deal a tremendous blow to our ability to effectively operate the station. We are grateful for the long-standing support from our Congressional delegation, and know Rhode Island has four vocal advocates in Washington.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse told Motif, “Rhode Island’s arts scene is part of what makes our state a great place to live and work. Federal funding that helps that arts scene flourish is a legacy of Rhode Island’s Claiborne Pell. If this administration tries shuttering the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, or privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, they’ll have a fight on their hands from our delegation.”

Rep. Jim Langevin told Motif, “Let me be clear: Funding for the arts, the humanities and public broadcasting is not just ‘nice to have.’ It is a must have. This is not a feel-good issue with no real consequence. Quite the contrary; threats to funding for these programs would have very real and very damaging consequences to education, to our economy and to the public good. The work funded through these agencies helps to foster creativity and innovation, preserve and celebrate our nation’s heritage, and educate and inspire the next generation of leaders. The NEA, the NEH and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting meet at the nexus of culture and creativity in America, and we cannot afford to lose them.”

Sen. Jack Reed, Rep. David Cicilline, and Gov. Gina Raimondo were also asked for comment but had not replied by press time.


Additional reporting on this subject:

NEA: Art Finds a Way

Keep Art a Communication of Love by Keeping Government Out of It

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