President of the United States Donald Trump speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is once again slated for elimination under President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, released on Tuesday. As part of a $3.6 trillion slash to federal spending over 10 years—including major cuts to Medicaid and other social safety net programs—the arts agency would see both direct grantmaking and funding to states zeroed out. To ensure an orderly shutdown, the NEA would receive $29 million for salary and administrative costs through fiscal year 2018.
“This budget request is a first step in a very long budget process,” read an NEA statement forwarded by a spokesperson to Artsy. “We continue to accept grant applications for FY 2018 at our usual deadlines and will continue to operate as usual until a new budget is enacted by Congress.”
President Trump first proposed a budget eliminating the NEA in March, just one of a number of sweeping cuts to cultural agencies including the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Critics charged that any such eliminations would be symbolic—the NEA accounted for 0.004% of discretionary federal spending in 2016—and aimed at placating his conservative base rather than achieving the stated reductions in spending.
After intense lobbying by arts advocacy groups, a bipartisan short-term spending agreement enacted by Congress in early May actually increased the agency’s funding from $148 million to $150 million. But that bill expires in September, and Congress—which controls the government’s purse strings—will then hash out a new budget that may or may not incorporate President Trump’s latest proposals.
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.”