Eliminating the NEA Will Disproportionately Hurt Communities of Color
“How can we continue to build institutions that will safeguard our traditions, that will represent the interests of our communities?”
The question came from Dr. Sheridan Booker, a scholar of the African Diaspora and an Oba priestess, during the Caribbean Cultural Center (CCCADI)’s annual event “Trade/itions: Trans-Atlantic Orisha Sacred Traditions” last February.
Attracting hundreds of members of the African Diaspora from across the U.S. and the Caribbean, the event frames Black sacred and cultural traditions as key elements in the movement for social justice.
It’s the kind of event that bolsters communities that too often go ignored or silenced—and it was made possible partly by the support of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Public funds like those provided by the NEA have been essential in fulfilling CCCADI’s mission to highlight the vibrant contributions of the African Diaspora to our nation and the world, and to fight for cultural equity and inclusion.
Last week, President Trump’s budget plan recommended eliminating the NEA completely. Such a measure would mainly cripple mid-size and small organizations like ours. The cuts are likely to have an outsized impact on artists and cultural organizations of color, which already struggle to stay afloat in an art world that favors European aesthetics and art forms.
Some will try to argue that the private sector will fill the financial vacuum left behind by the NEA. This is particularly unlikely in the case of organizations of color, which tend to be smaller and run on relatively modest budgets.
According to a 2011 research report by Holly Sidford for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the top 2 percent of American arts organizations with budgets over $5 million are those that receive significant foundation grants.
These organizations predominantly focus on Eurocentric arts. Very few organizations “rooted primarily in non-European aesthetics, or founded and run by people of color [have budgets of over $5 million].”
Only 10 percent of grant dollars benefit art groups that represent the ethnic and cultural diversity of the nation. As the Sidford report suggests, “a much smaller percentage of cultural philanthropy supports the arts and traditions of non-European cultures and the non-elite expressions of all cultures that comprise an increasing part of American society.”
Slashing federal art funding will not only have a disproportionate effect on organizations of color, it will also further limit access to funds at the city and state levels. Those communities with the most need for arts and culture programs stand to lose big from these measures.
Community-based arts institutions like ours provide cultural access to the most underserved schools. We have been doing so for the past 40 years through numerous education programs, and through the trainings we offer to art educators, helping them to reinforce multicultural experiences in the classroom and build more inclusive curriculums.
Our ability to offer these services to New York City schools would suffer under the current administration’s proposed plan.
Beyond the financial implications, eliminating the NEA would exact a symbolic toll. Trump’s budget proposal clearly outlines, in his view, what aspects of human experience are worthy of our taxpayer dollars—war, yes; art, no.
It also seeks to define who gets to speak, who has the right to culture, and who has a license to creativity. It silences and de-values many of the individuals that have built this nation.
When considered in tandem with the Trump administration’s most extreme measures and existential threats—building a wall along the Mexican border and implementing a Muslim ban—eliminating funding for the arts may seem like a relatively minor offense.
It is not, and we must speak up. We are the direct providers of services and skills to our most marginalized, underserved communities—the same communities that the White House has targeted with inhumane policies.
It’s no surprise that an administration hostile to diversity is introducing policies that make it more difficult to safeguard our histories and provide a pathway to equality for individuals of color. But the creative soul of our nation cannot be silenced.
We have reached a critical juncture, and we need to show our support for organizations that fight every day for social justice in our communities.
Now is the time to make your voice heard. Our nation reflects a constant challenge and dream to create a democratic society that reflects the racial and cultural values of all those who helped to build it.
It is the responsibility of each of us to call, write, demonstrate, and stand up to the attempts to silence our freedom.
We must speak louder than ever through our creativity, our art. Anything else would be an affront to our nation’s promise of embracing the full spectrum of human experience.
Dr. Marta Moreno Vega
Dr. Marta Moreno Vega is the founder and president of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) in East Harlem, New York.