The National Endowment of the Arts is under attack — again. The foes are the same tired cast of characters who have assaulted the agency for the last 30 years. Their arguments are the same threadbare notions that have been repeatedly rejected. They are mounting a partisan battle that will do the nation no good. But for the sake of the arts, it needs to be fought again and won.
Since it was authorized in 1965, the NEA has been a small federal agency with a large capacity for making arts available across the United States. In the 1980s Culture Wars, the agency faced controversies about blasphemous and obscene art, most notably a Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibition. Congress also criticized that its funding went mostly to a few cities. Surviving heated public debates, the agency responded by broadening its program and its reach. In the current century, the NEA has enjoyed wide popularity, consistently good press and bipartisan support in Washington.
The latest attack comes from two groups, the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee in the House of Representatives. They jointly recommend that President Donald Trump eliminate the NEA and its companion agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, in the new White House budget. The Trump administration has not yet made a decision, and the president has made no public statement on the issue. In the meantime, the arts world is in a state of anxiety.
Both the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee have long been obsessed with ending federal support for the arts. During my six years as the chairman of the NEA under President George W. Bush, these groups launched one unsuccessful volley after another. Their stated rationale was that the federal government had no business funding the arts. Beneath that small-government ideal, however, was another openly acknowledged motive not related to the public good but to political advantage. By eliminating the NEA, they could deliver a symbolic victory against leftist urban constituencies.
There is an obvious element of class warfare in these attacks — the endowment’s critics often say its grants are a way for the rich to use public money to subsidize their own elite cultural institutions. This assertion misrepresents how and where the NEA does its work.
The NEA’s 2017 budget is $149.8 million. In a nation of 319 million people, that amount doesn’t allow the agency to subsidize much of anything. But the endowment has found ways to make the money work with outsized effectiveness and efficiency. It makes thousands of small grants to nonprofit organizations — on average 2,100 a year. Each grant requires the recipient to raise matching local funds — often at a ratio of two or three local dollars for each federal one. So the NEA mostly serves as a catalyst for local groups to raise private and state money to serve their own communities. )On its modest budget, NEA funding now reaches every state, every congressional district and even most counties — rural and urban — in the United States. Grants fund programs in schools, libraries and military bases. Nearly half the grants go directly to state and regional arts organizations to expand grass-roots efforts. NEA grants never pay overhead or annual expenses. They only fund specific programs of artistic and educational excellence that reach the public.