Trump’s Attack on Government Funding of the Arts
President Trump announced his planned budget for the year 2018 to great fanfare a couple weeks ago. His cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, foreign aid, and to non-defense discretionary spending overall were duly noted, as his $54 billion hike to the defense budget made the headlines. However, Trump’s proposal to cut four arts and cultural agencies, making up the bulk of the federal cultural infrastructure, was completely overshadowed by his other announcements. The Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) are just four agencies among 19 others that Trump wishes to void of all funding.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services serves as “the primary source of federal source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and approximately 35,000 museums,” according its website. It was formed in 1996 and had a budget of $230 million in 2016. The Institute’s Director, Dr. Kathryn K Matthew, reacted in a statement to the suggested cuts, explaining that since its formation the Institute had “invested in rural and smaller communities by supporting basic infrastructure and by developing libraries as local community hubs. Dr. Matthew added that $214 million of the Institute’s funding was directly funneled to libraries and museums in “every state and territory” through its grant programs.
The CPB operates in a similar way to the Institute of Museum and Library Services; it redistributes over 70% of its $445 million budget to “nearly 1500 locally owned public radio and television stations.” CPB CEO Patricia Harrison warned that cutting the CPB would cause the “collapse of the public media system itself.” This proposed cut has also reignited the long-standing feud between services like Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) and the GOP. Whereas NPR only gets around 10% of its funding from federal sources, PBS is much more dependent on the CPB, as around half of the agency’s budget goes out to PBS’ 350 public television station affiliates. PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger spoke out against Trump’s proposal, responding that “the cost of public broadcasting is small, only $1.35 per citizen per year, and the benefits are tangible: increasing school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and homeschoolers, lifelong learning, public safety communications and civil discourse.”
Thus, after having only quickly glanced at the role these services play, it clearly appears that they focus on funding and providing basic support to local and rural cultural efforts across the US. The same also goes for the NEH and the NEA. And yet, conservatives insist on depicting these agencies as “elitist.” Since the culture wars in the 1980s, there have been multiple Republican attempts to cut or reduce the funding of these agencies, notably during the Reagan years. They survived these efforts, and they could again this time around: they are popular agencies whose domain should encourage bipartisanism, and cuts to them would require a 60 vote supermajority in Senate to be approved –meaning that 8 Democrats would have to vote in favor of them.
Whatever the outcome, it is deeply troubling that Trump would want to undermine arts and culture in such a way. The argument that most arts funding is not federal- but donor-based, while true, does not hold. Those agencies devote most of their resources to grassroots and local initiatives. The NEA uses its $148 million budget to make, on average, 2100 grants per year, wrote Dana Gioia, who oversaw the NEA from 2003 to 2009, in a LA Times op-ed last month. Gioia explains that “each grant requires the recipient to raise matching local funds – often at a ratio of two or three local dollars to each federal one.” The NEA’s programs, such as its Shakespeare project which has brought live theater to “millions” in rural communities and its Poetry Out Loud contest which engages “a quarter of a million” teenagers, are universal and far-reaching.
Scott Stringer of the Office of the New York City Comptroller writes in a recent report titled “Culture Shock” that “organizations supported by the NEA have an outsized impact on [New York City], delivering arts programming and education in scores of neighborhoods, spurring creativity and critical funding, and providing thousands of jobs to local residents.” The NEA and the NEH alike contribute to the vitality of the cultural ecosystem to a greater degree that their budgets would suggest.
The NEH, which was created along with the NEA in 1965, functions on a $148 million budget to fund humanities programs in the US. It awards grants to archives, schools, colleges, scholars, and other cultural institutions to spur the broad intellectual dynamism of the humanities as a field of interest. For the price of ten Black Hawks (those helicopters that Trump wants the US Army to get more of) the NEA and the NEH can each reach millions of Americans, helping to make arts, culture, and knowledge more available. Considering the important impact of these agencies, these is no economic logic to Trump’s decision.
Gioia, the ex-NEA head, has no doubt that Trump is trying to score political points by cutting these agencies, as he “could deliver a symbolic victory against left urban constituencies.” As local communities and the public good suffer from these cuts, Trump gets to appear on the winning side in the conservative crusade on big government and liberal institutions. As he proved with his failed American Health Care Act –which would have cost 24 million citizens their coverage according to the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office– Trump is not afraid of alienating his own voters with policies that go counter to their interests. His cuts of these four cultural agencies would happen at the disadvantage of rural and local communities and thus threaten the viability of a cultural microcosm that relies on them for support and funding. Meanwhile, large institutions such as the MoMA or the Met will go unscathed, as they feed on private donors and not public funding; from the outside-in the arts’ world will mostly look the same, minus many small-scale, unpublicized programs.
These four agencies, as pointed out by the Washington Post, collectively amount to 0.02% of the federal budget. Trump is not embracing fiscal austerity but giving in to conservative voices, such as the Heritage Foundation think tank. The Heritage Foundation has long advocated for the NEA, the NEH, and the CBP to be cut, and recently noted on its website that “Trump administration budget blueprint looks a lot like Heritage’s plan.” It does.
The Heritage Foundation is the major conservative think tank in D.C. and played a major role in Trump’s transition team. Now that the Heritage Foundation can now directly influence policy at the highest echelons of government, more reactionary measures are likely to follow suite. This use of cultural policy as a political tool is reminiscent of the practices of extreme right parties in Europe, such as France’s Front National. In its 1997 report “Ten good reasons to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts,” the Heritage Foundation derailed the agency as “welfare for cultural elitists.” Le Pen’s Front National has been similarly accusing cultural policy of serving the interests of “an ever more restricted elite.” These parallels are undoubtedly reason for worry on both sides of the Atlantic.