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Termination or Continuation? Parsing the Uncertain Status of Federal Arts & Humanities Appropriations

While Congress and President Trump continue to kick the budgetary can down the road, federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities remains temporarily intact, with its future in doubt. With the federal government’s 2019 fiscal year having begun Monday, NEA and NEH are among the many federal programs operating under a continuing resolution, signed by the President to avoid shutdowns. This “minibus” package, as it’s called, maintains last year’s funding levels until the legislature and chief executive can get their acts together.

Once again, the White House’s budget calls for NEA and NEH “to begin shutting down” in this fiscal year:

Title page of the White House budget

Although the House of Representatives and the Senate have yet to agree on a package of FY19 spending bills for a large number of agencies, including NEA and NEH, bills already passed by both houses agree on an appropriation of $155 million for the arts and humanities agencies—an increase from their $152.8 appropriations for FY18.

Unlike NEA and NEH, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) was among the programs included in a FY19 final spending bill that was signed into law by the President on Sept. 28. IMLS got a final appropriation of $242 million, “roughly $2 million more than the FY18 enacted budget,” according to IMLS’ press release.

Kathryn Matthew, director, IMLS

The IMLS’ announcement explains how the $2 million increase will be distributed:

IMLS received an additional $1 million for its research, evaluation, and data collection, as well as a $1 million bump in its administration budget. IMLS’s Grants to States Program, funded through the Library Services and Technology Act, as well as its other museum and library programs, received level funding from FY 2018.

By contrast, NEA’s website states that it had requested a mere $28.95 million “to begin the orderly closure of the agency; NEH’s website states it had requested a wind-down budget of $42.31 million. Both requests were based on the assumption that legislation would be enacted to terminate the agencies in FY19, as requested by the White House. Fortunately for our country’s creative and intellectual life, that assumption may not be realized.

Nevertheless, the future remains precarious and future planning remains difficult until the situation is finally resolved by a budget passed by Congress and signed by the President.

“NEA ARTS” magazine cover

The chart below, sent by the arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts to its constituents, shows the current status of federal budget proposals for 13 different arts-related agencies, programs and institutions, including the Smithsonian Institution and National Gallery of Art. The righthand column shows which of the 13 have final appropriations and which are operating under continuing resolution (C/R):

In the meantime, Jane Chu, perhaps the NEA’s least controversial and most peripatetic chairman ever, has left the building after serving a four-year term. She has joined PBS as an arts advisor. Replacing her as acting NEA chairman is Mary Anne Carter, previously the agency’s senior deputy chairman.

Mary Anne Carter

Jon Parrish Peede remains as NEH chairman, having succeeded William “Bro” Adams after he precipitously resigned in May 2017.

Jon Parrish Peede

As we search for signs for intelligent life in the federal universe, perhaps we can take some small encouragement from President Trump’s recent address to the United Nations, during which I had a “did-he-really-say-that?” moment when he gave lip-service to the importance of art.

Here’s what he told world leaders:

The passion that burns in the hearts of patriots and the souls of nations has inspired reform and revolution, sacrifice and selflessness, scientific breakthroughs, and magnificent works of art [emphasis added].

I’m feeling cautiously optimistic that Congress will reward NEA and NEH for their good work and that the President will go along, focusing on the more momentous battles ahead. That said, when I read the language in the President’s FY19 proposed budget (p. 100), I felt disheartened.

Here’s the White House’s “justification” for axing NEA and NEH:

The Budget proposes to begin shutting down NEA in 2019, given the notable funding support provided by private and other public sources and because the Administration does not consider NEA activities to be core Federal responsibilities. In 2014, NEA funding represented just four percent of total public and private support for the arts in the United States….

The Budget proposes to begin shutting down NEH in 2019, given there are non-Federal sources of funding for humanities and the Administration does not consider the activities within this agency to be core Federal responsibilities. Non-Federal funding for humanities in the United States comes from private donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

An Open the Books Oversight Report found that NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services had provided grants in 2016 to over 70 nonprofit organizations that have asset bases larger than $1 billion.

In that context, it’s time to re-up the incisive February NY Times op-ed piece by Tom Campbell, then director of the Metropolitan Museum. In The Folly of Abolishing the NEA, he argued that federal grants have been “crucial in persuading others to add their support.” I made a similar argument that same day, here: The “Leveraging Effect”: Why Small Grants from the Endangered NEA & NEH Matter.

As indicated in the White House’s termination justification, federal funding does represent only a small fraction of the budgets of arts organizations. But the federal imprimatur has an important ripple effect, moving individuals, corporations and foundations to provide additional support, particularly for the benefit of less well established organizations and projects targeting under-served audiences.

Since the 1960s, NEA and NEH have repeatedly proven their worth. Long may they and their beneficiaries thrive.

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