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Cause for Cautious Optimism? NEA’s Statement on Continued Federal Funding

Widespread reports that President Trump has decided to ax the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities may (or may not) be premature. The only hard information on this that I’ve seen is Alexander Bolton‘s report in The Hill, a week ago, that the Trump transition team had proposed eliminating the NEA and NEH and privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Jane Chu, center, chairman, National Endowment for the Arts, with Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture, and Peter Reed, senior deputy director, Museum of Modern Art
Photo from Jane Chu’s Twitter feed

Where Trump himself stands on federal funding for the arts and humanities has not been revealed, so I contacted officials at the possibly endangered NEA and NEH, in an attempt to find out what, if anything, they know about their future prospects.

Victoria Hutter, NEA’s assistant director for public affairs, told me this:

Like most federal agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts is operating under a Continuing Resolution for FY17 [my link, not hers], which goes through April 2017. We look forward to participating in the usual [her emphasis, not mine] budget process for the FY18 budget with OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and The White House.

In the meantime, we continue to do our work, processing grants, convening panels, working with applicants, etc. In addition, President Trump’s administration contacted the NEA last week to begin the process for appointments [emphasis added] of incoming administration officials at the NEA. We don’t know at this point when [not if?] those officials will be in place.

The last two sentences suggest that NEA could be an ongoing operation, although probably with a new chairman to replace Jane Chu, an Obama appointee. She’s made it point to have personal contact with constituents around the country, as chronicled in her farflung Twitter feed. Chairmen and council members of the National Endowments are appointed by the President. Trump has been slow to focus on this: In December 2008, the month after President Obama was elected to his first term, he already had a transition team in place to make appointment recommendations for the nation’s culture-related agencies.

For background information, Hutter encouraged me to visit NEA’s facts page, which states that the agency’s “FY2016 appropriation of $147.9 million constitutes approximately .004 percent of the federal budget. More than 80 percent of the appropriation is distributed as grants and awards to organizations and individuals across the country” (emphasis added). Sounds to me like good bang for the buck.

Theola DeBose, communications director for the NEH, currently chaired by William Adams, was less forthcoming:

We are not going to be speculating on the policies or priorities of the new administration.

William Adams, chairman, NEH

I’ve seen nothing said about funding considerations for the other federal agency that is often lumped together with NEA and NEH in discussions about budget cuts—the Institute of Museum and Library Services. And the Smithsonian? Let’s not even go there.

It would be a mistake for art advocates to wait until this muddy situation becomes clearer. Not raising objections early and often would allow the cutters to claim that few people care. The American Alliance of Museums has urged proponents of continued federal arts funding to “make sure your members of Congress know how important these funds are to your museum. Use our template letter, especially if your museum has benefited from a federal grant, and personalize your message in just a few clicks.”

Advocates can add their names to petitions on the White House website and on Change.org. The former has a mere 840 signatures at this writing, and Brian Boucher of Artnet has suggested that the White House petition is “mysteriously failing to register new signatures.” (That was not my own experience, but the process may be partly to blame: It requires signers to click a link, sent to their email address, to confirm their vote.) The Change.org petition, addressed to Trump, Chu and five others, is more robust, with 17,558 signatories at this writing.

In the Presidency, as on the campaign trail, Trump is still playing to his base. It’s fair to say that the culturati are not his target audience. Maybe country singer Lee Greenwood, who was appointed to the National Council for the Arts by George W. Bush and still serves there, can use some leverage: He performed his signature song, “God Bless the USA,” at the inaugural festivities and publicly criticized other celebrities for declining to perform. Perhaps he could revise his anthem for the current moment—“God Bless the NEA.”

An even more influential arts advocate, if her First Lady bio is to be believed, could be Melania Trump, described on the White House website as having “a penchant and passion for the arts, architecture, design, fashion and beauty.” Persuasive pillow-talk is probably a longshot, but let’s hope her considerable beauty is more than skin deep.

Melania Trump holding the Bible at Presidential Inauguration
Screenshot of NBC coverage by Lee Rosenbaum

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