When Donald Trump became the first president to make a formal proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the future looked grim to the many artists and cultural organizations that have long worried about conservative efforts to close the federal arts-funding agency.
But the nightmare they feared never came to pass. The agency survived, its budget even grew a bit, not because President Trump ever wavered in his view of it as a waste of federal dollars, but because Congress, whose role as the president’s nemesis has only grown in recent days, voted to keep it alive.
And the legislative support was bipartisan because the agency had spent years cultivating supporters on both sides of the aisle.
“The years and years of work that we had done to create a pro-arts Congress, whether Republican or Democrat, really came through,” said Nina Ozlu Tunceli, executive director of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund. “Congress became a firewall to prevent that termination from happening.”
Part of the argument against shuttering the arts endowment has always rested on the fact that culture is an economic engine and that, as federal agencies go, the N.E.A. is hardly an expensive one. Its $167.5 million budget for 2021 is still no more than what one city, New York, spends on its cultural affairs. The number has grown by about $17 million since 2017, but it’s still absolutely dwarfed by the cultural budgets in European countries where financial support for the arts is viewed as a government function. For example, Britain’s culture ministry has annually spent more than $1 billion on the arts for years.
Nevertheless, to many in the world of culture, the endowment’s value as a symbol cannot be underestimated. Created in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation declaring that the arts and humanities belong to all people, the endowment was founded on the belief that the arts have a role in the spiritual and economic health of the nation, and deserve government underpinning.
Its individual grants are relatively small in a cultural industry that predominantly relies, not on government support, but ticketing and private donations for funding. Nevertheless, defenders of the agency see the federal government’s role in backing the arts, in awarding coveted honors and issuing grants, as sustaining, and smaller organizations, whose ability to tap major donors for help is limited, often view financial help of any size as essential.
But the endowment has long been in the cross hairs of Republicans as a symbol of wasteful liberal largess. When President Trump took power, experts feared he was restarting a cultural war that his successor Joe Biden participated in three decades ago. The first Trump budget, and each succeeding one, proposed eliminating funding for the arts agency, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports public television and radio outlets around the country.
This was reminiscent of the fight in the 1990s when conservatives argued that the agency served a narrow audience, ignored Middle America, pushed a leftist, elitist agenda and funded projects that were insulting, silly or even obscene. Grants, for example, to Karen Finley, a provocative performance artist who smeared chocolate and yams over her naked body, outraged some conservative members of Congress.
More recently, a conservative online outlet in 2016 targeted “Doggie Hamlet,” an outdoor dance project by the choreographer and performance artist Ann Carlson involving actors, sheep and dogs. Described as “a full-length outdoor performance spectacle that weaves dance, music, visual and theatrical elements with aspects from competitive sheep herding trials,” the project was ridiculed in The Washington Free Beacon under the headline “Taxpayers Foot Bill for ‘Doggie Hamlet.’”
The agency defended its funding for the project, saying it was in line with its mission to give Americans the opportunity to “exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.”
Mr. Trump has argued that with all the financial pressures the country is facing, no federal money should be going to the arts and that it was not up to government to decide what art was important anyway. And so, it became a yearly ritual: Mr. Trump proposed taking away the agency’s funding, and Congress voted to put it back again. Those who lobbied in support of the arts agency cited a few of the Republican lawmakers who provided particularly strong support, including Representative Elise Stefanik of New York and Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.
Representative Chellie Pingree, a Democrat and vice chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional arts caucus, said one reason the endowment survived was the broad reach of its programs. “That money trickles down to artists and rural schools that would not be able to have an arts program,” she said in an interview, adding that she would be fighting to increase its budget in coming years.
Mr. Trump’s critics say his attempted budget slashing was just one way he demonstrated his antipathy to the arts. They cite how he gave out National Medals of Arts only twice during his term, the second time just days ago in the midst of his second impeachment. He also disbanded the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities after its members resigned to protest his defense of white nationalists after the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. (White House officials said Mr. Trump had already decided to shut down the committee.)
Their concerns only grew when President Trump’s choice to lead the agency was Mary Anne Carter, a Republican political strategist with very little background in the arts. Prior leaders of the agency had been higher profile arts figures, like Jane Alexander, the actress, and Rocco Landesman, the Broadway producer. But Ms. Carter has won broad applause from the arts community for her advocacy and for maintaining the agency’s work during the Trump years. The appointment of a new senior deputy chairman for the agency also won praise for bringing know-how about how to help the arts at the local level.
Ms. Carter declined to comment for this article. Through a spokeswoman she provided a list of some of the agency’s achievements during her tenure, which included outreach to historically black colleges and universities to encourage them to apply for funding; providing grants “to build out the nation’s folk and traditional arts infrastructure”; and deploying staff for the first time to areas where natural disasters had occurred, like Puerto Rico.
The endowment’s website said that during Carter’s term she had “pushed to make the National Endowment for the Arts more accessible to the American people,” citing the expansion of an arts therapy program for service members and veterans at military medical facilities.
The agency’s budget also grew during her tenure. The spending plan, set at $149.8 million in 2017, rose to $162.3 million by 2020, the same year it channeled an additional $75 million in federal stimulus funds to arts groups. In 2016, the agency disbursed almost 2,500 grants. In 2020, the number was more than 3,300 grants, including the federal emergency stimulus funding it was charged with passing on, in more than 16,000 communities.
Another concern among longtime supporters of the arts agency was that, if the endowment survived, it would be reshaped to support a conservative agenda. But art experts said they had not detected any effort to move in that direction. The endowment, the experts said, had continued to distribute grants to every Congressional district across the nation, a conscious decision designed to signal that there is no partisan bias in its allocations.
Laura Lott, president and chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums, credited Ms. Carter with helping to safeguard the arts agency from party politics. She said Ms. Carter is “deeply attached to the arts and sees it as a nonpartisan issue.”
“There was no tilt,” she said.
In the end, arts advocates hope, the legacy of Mr. Trump’s attacks may be a stronger consensus in favor of the endowment. In President-elect Biden they see someone who will continue to defend government’s role in backing the arts. Mr. Trump, however, was hardly alone in viewing the arts as being outside the purview of government and the agency as an inconsequential bit of wasteful federal spending.
In December, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization, wrote that it supported his campaign against what it said was wasteful spending in the federal budget, including the arts endowment. Support for the arts, it said, is “something that is much better done by private contributions.”
“Federally funded arts programs are susceptible to cultural cronyism whereby special interests promoting a social agenda receive government favor to promote their causes,” it wrote in a 2019 report.
So as a new administration takes office, supporters of the federal arts agency said they understand that the ground beneath it is still shaking a bit, especially as the pandemic has plunged the cultural sector into a financial tailspin and Congress confronts turmoil across the economy.
“We are relieved with how things ended up,” said Ms. Lott, “but we don’t take anything for granted.”
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