The recent (though perhaps fleeting) success in saving the arts agencies shows just how much the politics around the NEA have changed since the embattled “culture wars” of the 1990s. Though still a popular target for the hard right, the NEA is finding support on both sides of the political spectrum. After the release of President Trump’s prior budget, 11 House Republicans and 2 of their colleagues in the Senate—along with numerous Democrats—signed separate letters calling on the President to drop his plans to gut the agency.
But the administration has ignored the calls, and on Tuesday proposed a new budget for 2018 that appears markedly similar to the prior plans from March. Along with elimination of the NEA, the NEH is also slated to be gutted in the latest release of the budget. NEH chairman William D. Adams announced his sudden resignation on Monday shortly before the budget became public.
“I’m especially appreciative of the excellent and dedicated staff of the agency, who taught me so much about the importance of the humanities and the innovative and meaningful work that is going on at NEH and across the country,” Adams said in a statement
Despite continued pressure from the executive branch, arts advocates are hopeful that allies in Congress will carry the day—especially since a president’s budget plan often differs drastically from what is passed by the legislature.
“Both Republicans and Democrats realize—despite the president’s attempts to kill these agencies—how much [they] contribute to American life,” said Hunter O’Hanian, College Art Association (CAA) executive director, speaking via telephone.
Indeed, as Artsy reported
in January, the NEA has an outsize impact despite a relatively miniscule budget, both through its grants programs as well as an indemnity program that saves museums millions of dollars. The NEA further helps arts organizations raise private funds, and its geographical mandate ensures that financial support reaches beyond the nation’s cultural capitals.
According to the NEA, it awarded over 2,500 grants this past fiscal year, spread across all 435 congressional districts. Smaller organizations—defined as those who spent less than $350,000 the prior year—received 30% of NEA direct grants. The agency gives about 40% of its grant and awards budget, around $47 million, to states’ arts agencies, which would see that funding vanish under the current proposal.
While absolute NEA grant dollars rise in accordance with population size (bigger cities get more money overall), the actual per capita value of NEA grants increases as population lessens (smaller communities get more NEA dollars per person). As such, advocates contend that eliminating the agency would impact those who already have the least access to culture.
Numerous groups—from Americans for the Arts to the National Humanities Alliance—will likely take a similar message to Congress in support of the NEA, NEH, and other funders of the humanities. While noting that he was still evaluating the budget proposal’s specifics, O’Hanian said the CAA would begin working quickly to rally support.
“This is a very cynical budget that the administration has put forward,” he said. “There definitely will be a fight.”