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 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 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.
The NEA Shakespeare program, for example, has helped bring professional stage productions to 3,900 towns, mostly small and midsize communities — from Douglas, Alaska, to Santa Cruz, Calif., to Pawtucket, R.I. It has provided millions of high school students with a chance to experience live theater, most of them for the first time — allowing them to see the plays they are studying in class. This program has also provided work for thousands of actors and crew. The NEA funding pays only a small part of the total program cost. The rest is raised by local citizens eager to have Shakespeare in their schools.
Operation Homecoming allows troops returning from combat to write about their wartime experiences. This program also reaches the wounded in military hospitals. NEA’s Jazz Masters tour grants have brought musicians to local festivals and classrooms; from 2008 to 2014, 51 artists played at 327 venues. Meanwhile every year a quarter of a million teenagers participate in Poetry Out Loud, a national high school recitation contest. Do any of these programs sound elitist?
No American president — Republican or Democrat — has ever tried to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. Despite urban legends to the contrary, even Ronald Reagan was a supporter. Although Reagan’s first budget director, David Stockman, recommended “zeroing out” the agency, the president, himself an artist, rejected the proposal. By the end of Reagan’s tenure, the NEA budget stood at a historic high.
The arts in America wouldn’t be destroyed if the NEA ceased to exist. But music, dance, theater, literature and visual arts would become less widely available, especially in schools, rural areas and poorer communities. Access to culture should not be a function of family income. That is why citizens must remind their representatives in Washington that the NEA needs to be protected. Believe it or not, most members of Congress will be pleased to get these letters.
Public support for the arts and arts education is neither a partisan nor a divisive issue. Most Americans want to see the arts in their communities and their schools. Most members of Congress agree. So do most governors and state legislatures. A 2016 public opinion poll conducted by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts found that 55 percent were in favor of doubling the NEA’s budget (from 46 cents per person then to $1 per person). In a divided country, the arts represent a rare consensus. Let’s not lose it.
Dana Gioia, professor of poetry and public culture at USC, was unanimously confirmed twice by the Senate to lead the NEA from 2003 through 2009. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.