Yesterday morning, as you’ve likely read by now, the Trump administration released the outline of its budget request to Congress. And it turns out that those early reports were right: it recommends deep cuts in a number of federal agencies, and total elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, among others. The announcement comes mere days before hundreds descend on Washington for Arts Advocacy Day next week.
For the past decade, Createquity has taken a technocratic approach to covering arts policy in the United States and beyond. We’re not mindless cheerleaders for arts funding; we recognize that governing requires making tradeoffs in the face of limited resources, and have argued against certain types of government arts support in the past. Nevertheless, we believe that the National Endowment for the Arts and other targeted federal agencies do valuable work and are worth saving.
Here are some perspectives on the current budget situation that you may find of use:
Are all these cuts actually going to happen?
Probably not, but that doesn’t mean the danger isn’t real. It appears that Trump’s budget was heavily influenced by staffers from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has long targeted agencies including the NEA and CPB out of an ideological belief that the government shouldn’t be funding the arts and humanities at all. Nevertheless, the budget proposal is already running into opposition from Congressional Republicans, who are seeing it as unrealistic and poorly targeted. Furthermore, eliminating the NEA and NEH will require an actual act of Congress, not just a ratification of the president’s budget. All of that suggests it’s unlikely (though possible) that the agencies will disappear completely, at least in FY18.
That said, it seems virtually certain that we will see at least some cuts. Trump’s budget is so aggressive in so many areas that pushing back on all fronts simultaneously will be very difficult—indicative of a classic hardball negotiation technique.
How will regular people be affected if these agencies are actually eliminated?
It depends on where they live. The vast majority of foundations and individual donors concentrate their giving in the immediate geographic area around where they’re based, which means that the areas with the most wealth (largely big cities on the coasts) are also the ones that receive the most philanthropic funding. As a result, resources are few and far between for arts organizations and public radio and television stations alike in rural America.
In the NEA’s case, the agency has made a point to provide direct funding in every congressional district in the country. Perhaps even more important, though, is the NEA’s system of partnerships with state and regional arts councils, which come with a carrot of matching funds from the federal government in exchange for appropriations from state budgets to their respective state arts councils. In the years following the Great Recession when state budgets were under severe pressure, many of these state arts councils survived in no small part because of this matching fund arrangement. Meanwhile, an external assessment estimates that eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would mean 12 million people losing their access to over-the-air public television, mostly in isolated areas.
As for arts organizations, museums, and public broadcasters in other regions of the country, some will have a tough time to be sure, but the overall effect on the ecosystem would be subtle. The United States didn’t have the NEA, the NEH, CPB, or IMLS for the first 190 years or so of its existence. We believe these agencies create more value than we spend on them, but if they are eliminated, arts and culture will soldier on.
Speaking of creating value, I read that the NEA gets a return of $9 for every dollar invested. Is that true?
No, and we wish arts advocates and the agency itself would avoid using this misleading statistic. It falsely assumes that none of the matching funds leveraged by the NEA would otherwise be there for grantees if the federal funding went away. In reality, matching funds are fungible to a large degree, meaning that the non-federal money is often already committed and it’s really the government that is providing the match, not the other way around. (The big exception here is matching funds for low-budget state arts councils, as discussed above.) Framing it as a “return on investment” is even more misleading, as this implies an astronomical multiplier effect to the spending that simply has no basis in evidence.
Right. So why can’t the arts just fend for themselves on the free market?
They already do. The United States is an outlier among developed-world economies in that its arts funding system is highly decentralized and market-driven. Just 1.2% of arts organizations’ budgets comes from the federal government, so artists and arts organizations have no choice but to sink or swim in the private sector. And as noted above, for all conservatives’ trumpeting of the free market, private philanthropy isn’t very generous to the rural areas and red states that helped Trump get elected. In any case, getting rid of the NEA doesn’t get the government out of the business of funding the arts. In fact, the most significant federal arts funding sources are the Smithsonian ($840 million) and the Department of Defense ($437 million for military bands alone). Yep, that’s right: we spend three times as much on military bands as we do on the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Not to mention, it’s a little rich to complain about nonprofit arts organizations drinking from the government trough when we give away billions of dollars in free money to for-profit industries including oil & gas, corn, and airlines.
Wait, so if the NEA is so insignificant, why bother fighting for it? Wouldn’t it be easier to just take the money and create a parallel private endowment with the same mission?
Yeah, that does sound nice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it probably wouldn’t work. Just to maintain current funding levels, which are well below the agency’s inflation-adjusted peak from 1992, one would have to raise an endowment of approximately $3 billion, which would rank up there with the nation’s largest private foundations. Interestingly, Kansas tried to do something like this several years ago—Governor Sam Brownback terminated the Kansas Arts Commission with the plan of setting up a new private entity, the Kansas Arts Foundation. The plan never got off the ground due to poor fundraising results, and the next year, the arts council was brought back to life under a new name.
The NEA’s budget is slight, but as a result it’s had to learn to accomplish a lot with a little (by federal government standards, anyway). The agency does important knowledge infrastructure work, most notably by organizing the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), conducted every five years in collaboration with Census Bureau. The SPPA provides us with widely-used statistics about arts participation that would be extremely hard to replicate with the same accuracy in the private sector, because the imprimatur of government is so important for reliable surveys. As a government agency, the NEA also possesses an important power to help set agendas in an otherwise leaderless ecosystem. The contemporary creative placemaking movement was almost entirely incubated at the NEA under the leadership of former Chairman Rocco Landesman, which looms as one of the Endowment’s biggest policy wins in recent history.
What about the argument that the arts and media are better off operating outside the influence of government?
We largely agree with this—it’s one reason why the United States is better equipped to withstand creeping authoritarianism than democracies with more centrally controlled institutions. But as noted above, America’s arts funding system is already far too weak to make political work risky for artists in the way that it is risky in some other countries. Thus, while protecting freedom of expression could be a valid argument against increasing the agencies’ budgets by too great an amount, it is not an argument for decreasing them.
What about other agencies? Is the impact on the arts limited to the Endowments, IMLS, and CPB?
Unfortunately, no. The Trump budget is very wide-ranging in its targets, and includes relevant cuts to the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Interior Department’s National Heritage Areas, funding for after-school and summer enrichment programs within the Department of Education, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which helps fund low-income artist housing initiatives.
Is it wise to put energy into defending the NEA and these other agencies when there’s so much else going on (climate change, threats to immigrants, international relations, etc.)?
That’s a tough call, but we believe the answer is yes. The Trump administration represents a unique challenge for America today, and picking battles seems to play into its strategy. Legislators make the budget, legislators for the most part want to keep their jobs, and they respond to pressure from their constituents. So you know what to do. #SavetheNEA.
Cover photo credit: Felix Russell-Saw