an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Defying Trump, Bipartisan Deal Would Boost Funding for NEA and NEH (with strings attached)

The strong efforts of arts-and-humanities advocates appear to have (at least temporarily) overcome the pernicious, fallacious notion that the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities are preserves of the elite and therefore unworthy of government support. But Congress has added some of its own guidelines for awarding federal arts grants, just to make sure.

Far from slashing or even zeroing the budgets for the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities, as proposed by President Trump, a bipartisan budget agreement to avoid a government shutdown (which, at this writing, awaits final passage and Trump’s signature) includes moderate increases for NEA, NEA and other culture-related institutions and programs, as reported by the jubilant (but still vigilant) Americans for the Arts.

Wendy Clark, NEA’s director of museums, visual arts and indemnity
Photo by A. Phil McNeal II

Here’s the comparative chart posted Monday by that arts advocacy group, showing past and proposed appropriations:

Source: Americans for the Arts

Less welcome is the Consolidated Appropriations Act‘s intrusion on the NEA’s decision-making process, which I haven’t seen others comment on: It instructs the agency [on p. 893] to “ensure that priority is given to providing services or awarding financial assistance for projects, productions, workshops, or programs that serve underserved populations….’Underserved population’ means a population of individuals, including urban minorities, who have historically been outside the purview of arts and humanities programs due to factors such as a high incidence of income below the poverty line or to geographic isolation.”

What’s more, the bill dictates the establishment of a new grant category “for projects, productions, workshops, or programs that are of national impact or availability or are able to tour several States.”

This language would seem to prioritize the evenhandedness of geographic and demographic diversity over the perceived elitism of supporting artistic excellence, which I have always regarded as NEA’s primary mission. But as Rich Benjamin noted in his recent New Yorker article—The N.E.A. Really Isn’t “Welfare for Rich, Liberal Elites”—this Congressionally mandated realignment of priorities has already happened. With numerous examples, he eviscerates the argument of White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, that a “steelworker in Ohio” or a “coal-mining family in West Virginia” shouldn’t be asked to support what some perceive as (in Benjamin’s words) “a federal spigot for decadent city elites.”

Benjamin writes:

Its [NEA’s] grant-making effectively spans the country and helps rural, not-New York, not-wealthy, Trump-friendly districts…. Forty per cent of N.E.A. activity happens in high-poverty areas. Thirty-six per cent of its institutional grants help groups working with disadvantaged populations. And a third of grants serve low-income audiences….Many rural, poorer areas would be the hardest hit by Trump’s elimination of government arts programs.

A welcome vote of confidence for NEA and NEH, the Appropriation Act is just one of the instances in which the Republican-controlled legislature diverged from President Trump‘s stated agenda. (Others, elucidated in Julie Hirschfeld DavisNY Times article yesterday, were: no funding of border-wall construction; no defunding of Planned Parenthood.)

But it’s not over till it’s over. Urgently needed to prevent a government shutdown, the Appropriations Act would cover only the remaining five months of fiscal 2017, ending Sept. 30.

“The FY18 appropriations bill for funding the federal government from Oct. 1, 2017 through Sept. 30, 2018 is still very much in play [emphasis added] and going through the legislative process,” noted Americans for the Arts. “This [FY18 appropriations legislation] is the bill [for which] the President recommended eliminating the NEA, NEH, IMLS [Institute of Museums and Library Services], CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting], etc. We remain focused on getting all of these agencies fully funded…in the coming months”…

…as should we.

an ArtsJournal blog