“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.