What NEA Supporters Can Learn from the Republicans Who Tried to Destroy It

Isaac Kaplan
Feb 22, 2017 9:43PM
Three Flags 2, 2015

“The National Endowment for the Arts has been described as embattled for so long that it now probably assumes this word is part of its name,” wrote art historian and critic Michael Brenson in a 1998 op-ed for the New York Times. The words are as true today as they were when Brenson first penned them.

Roughly a month after reports first emerged that the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities were potentially on the chopping block, the New York Times reported that the NEA and NEH are indeed on the “hit list” of programs targeted for elimination when President Trump releases his budget plan in April. The list of agencies seen by the administration as a “misuse of taxpayer dollars” will be finalized by March 13th.

So once again, the arts community must ask itself: How can we save the NEA? Since Republicans argue they are merely trimming the bloated federal budget, it is tempting to rely on the simple fact that eliminating the NEA will do effectively nothing towards this goal—the agency received only about $147.9 million in fiscal year 2016, or 0.004 percent of the $3.9 trillion federal budget.

But this fiscal argument, while factually correct, won’t galvanize people to come out and support the agency. In order to win the battle for the NEA, the arts community needs to link it to larger debates that more Americans will find compelling. This is how the Republicans reframed the debate over the NEA in the 1990s, and it’s a lesson for those of us who want to reframe it today.

The NEA has faced real threats since at least the Reagan administration. But the fight for the NEA that would explode in the 1990s can be traced back to the early years of the George H.W. Bush presidency, when a coalition of culture warriors and fiscal conservatives worked in concert to politicize and demonize the agency. One example: In the summer of 1989, several conservative direct-mail campaigns featured controversial works of art that the NEA had funded. Among other acts meant to weaken the agency, one year later Congress moved to take power away from the NEA and give it to the states, increasing the amount of federal funds the NEA apportioned to state arts agencies. But this didn’t assuage critique.

In the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich made the NEA a target as part of the fiscally and socially conservative “Contract with America” budget plan introduced leading up to the 1994 election. In 1995, the agency’s budget was slashed by almost 40 percent, resulting in the firing of nearly half its staff. Still not satisfied, in 1997 the conservative Heritage Foundation continued the salvo, arguing that “as the U.S. Congress struggles to balance the federal budget and end the decades-long spiral of deficit spending, few programs seem more worthy of outright elimination than the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).”

This successful politicization of the NEA has made it a popular far-right punching bag, well into the present day. Attacking an agency that, for many on the right, is synonymous with wasteful spending, religiously offensive art, and urban elitism amounts to a political win for conservatives. Until that political calculus changes, the attacks will keep coming.

So what would a countervailing strategy look like? One path is to shore up the commitment of those who are favorably disposed to government funding for the arts. This clue comes from a 1999 Princeton University study on Americans’ attitudes towards public arts funding. Two professors looked at public opinion polls and found that while a majority of Americans favored funding the arts (even throughout the 1990s’ “culture wars”), their commitment was fairly weak. They supported it, but not that much. And when more powerful political issues—like the size of government or tax cuts—framed questions around support for the NEA, the expressed support dropped.

It is a reminder that surveys showing support for federal aid to the arts are not the full picture. Yes, 55% of Americans said they were in favor of doubling the NEA’s budget, according to a 2015 poll by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts. But those supporters need to be engaged and vocal.

By contrast, only 15 to 20 percent of Americans favored sharply cutting or eliminating federal funding to the arts between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. But that committed minority was able to reframe the debate around the agency and take advantage of the oppositional majority’s relative ambivalence towards arts funding. As such, they scored victories disproportionate to public opinion.

The agency’s backers should think carefully about how to frame the NEA fight in order to make it an issue that will impassion average Americans. The study’s authors tentatively suggested that support for the NEA could be bolstered by shifting the debate to issues that are more likely to resonate with people’s values, such as freedom of expression. Arguing to save the NEA as part of a broader strategy to counter President Trump’s budget, which looks likely to imperil numerous agencies and programs, could also galvanize opinion given the low favorability ratings of the President. In other words, reframe the debate over the NEA through the lens of some hot-button political issues, rather than relying on statistics about the size of the NEA’s budget.

To be sure, there are obvious limitations in trying to appropriate the right’s strategy wholesale. Making a more political argument for the NEA might turn it into a partisan issue, imperiling the broad support it enjoys (though one could argue that the NEA has already been made a partisan issue). Another challenge is that the right’s campaign built on a strong existing network of organizations like evangelical churches and the Republican party to mobilize supporters and keep them engaged. Arts advocates and those on the left don’t have the same network to draw on.

Still, some 850 million people visit museums each year, and the larger creative economy employed 4.74 million people in 2013. Clearly, many culture-loving Americans have skin in this game. And advocacy groups such as Americans for the Arts already exist, working to lobby government officials on every level to increase funding. Their Arts Advocacy Day in Washington next month, which will see grassroots groups and cultural organizations gathering together in the capital to organize and strategize, has now taken on increased import.

Some grassroots arts organizations are showing how the field is already engaging with broader, hot-button political issues. The #J20 Art Strike—a one-day protest in which cultural groups protested Trump’s inauguration through work stoppages, closures, or special programming—brought the cultural community into the political fight. Since those in the cultural sector can’t draw on organizing frameworks like a network of churches or the infrastructure of a political party, strikes could serve as a useful jumping-off point for building communication networks (across social media, for example) that can be used for future protest, such as in defense of the NEA.

Combine this overtly political bent with organized efforts to exert political influence like the kinds of grassroots campaigns that conservatives used to pressure lawmakers, and you begin to echo the right’s strategy and tactics in the 1990s. For example, imagine having cultural institutions that participated in the strike host letter-writing campaigns in support of the NEA. Obviously the fight for the agency will be long and grueling. There is no sure-fire way to win, and a multiplicity of strategies are called for. But it is this kind of engaged political action that lets you envisage not just saving the NEA, but one day helping it grow once again.

Isaac Kaplan