The FY2018 federal budget proposes to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Here’s a brief look at the creation of the agency and the reasons why a national investment in the arts makes dollars and sense.
“The Arts Endowment’s mission was clear – to spread this artistic prosperity throughout the land, from the dense neighborhoods of our largest cities to the vast rural spaces, so that every citizen might enjoy America’s great cultural legacy.”
–from National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965-2008
During the desultory years of the Great Depression, 10,000 of the 15 million out of work Americans were artists. Through New Deal programs such as the Federal Arts Project and the Federal Writers’ Project, these artists recorded, documented and produced the bulk of American cultural achievement and historical record of the time. While this social program provided a historical precedent for federal support of artists, the nation’s leaders began to see America’s need to make a commitment to the bountiful creative expression of such a diverse and talented society without a socio-economic agenda. The time had come for America to put its might behind its artists, the very citizens who created the nation’s cultural heritage.
The National Endowment for the Arts, then, emerged as this commitment to the exaltation of the spirit produced by American artists. In his remarks at the signing of the arts and humanities bill in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson noted that to make America great, the fed needed to support the arts:
Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a Nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish. … What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset, to make fresher the winds of art in this great land of ours.
While the NEA more or less weathered the culture wars headed by North Carolina senator Jesse Helms in the ‘80s and house speaker Newt Gingrich in the ‘90s, the NEA’s unfortunate position as an easy target for political posturing continues to undermine the agency’s mission as set forth by LBJ.
On May 23, 2017, only a year and a half after the 50th anniversary of the agency, the current president released his budget proposal which outlines his plans to eliminate funding the NEA altogether. He is the only president in history to propose zeroing out funding to the nation’s cultural agency.
Congress ultimately approves or rejects the proposed line items, and Congress gave the NEA a $2 million boost for FY2017—a smart move considering the NEA helps an industry that generates $742 billion to the national economy. So, the people have an extraordinary opportunity to respond on behalf of preserving the NEA by contacting their members of Congress.
The NEA was a simple solution for the questions of how to preserve the many splendid cultural traditions of this nation and continue to nourish the creative soul of the country. Creating it demonstrated a stunning act of faith in humanity after the harrowing tumult of the early 60s and the American entrance into the Vietnam War.
NEA grants, while supporting high-profile artists and organizations, mostly support rural and inner city areas that lack the economic infrastructure to provide arts development for their people. The bulk of the grants go to small and mid-sized organizations. These grants help foster economic growth and community pride. People understand that arts nourish the greatness of their hometowns as well as their country as a whole.
As for the controlling-government-waste-by-cutting-arts-spending argument, it doesn’t hold. As of now, the NEA gets $150 million in funding (.003 percent of the total budget) yet supports an industry of nonprofit arts that return $9.6 billion in federal taxes. That’s a massive ROI.
In addition to the big business of arts funded partly by NEA grants, the National Endowment for the Arts serves as both repository and springboard for American arts, with some of the nation’s most renowned and gifted artistic geniuses and organizations participating in its development, implementation and execution. The first year of grants included Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, American Ballet Theatre, Actors Theater of Louisville, American Choral Society and to the New York City Opera to expand a training program for young singers and aspiring conductors. Over the years, the NEA supported American giants like the Joffrey Ballet and Dizzy Gillespie as well as hometown folk artists like cowboy poet Wallace McRae and programs like the Rural Arts Initiative and Arts Education Partnership. In 2016, the organization announced its new focus on contemporary authors for the NEA Big Read program and was nominated for an Emmy for its digital story series United States of Arts.
The NEA’s support helps the Straz Center deliver our Cultural Intersections program, a multi-disciplinary series of artists who use traditional, authentic artistic disciplines to transcend cultural boundaries. The NEA makes our work in this endeavor possible, opening our stages in recent seasons to such phenomenal artists as Black Violin, Parsons Dance Company, Celtic Nights, tabla master Zakir Hussein and others. This program includes an outreach arm which also sends our Cultural Intersections artists to the community in master classes, lectures and school visits with subsidized tickets for underserved K-12 students.
As the NEA says, a great nation deserves great art. A great agency doing good work at a great financial return deserves the nation’s support. In the immortal words of this country’s first president:
“The arts and sciences are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life. They have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.”
Want more info? The NEA produced this online fact sheet for simple answers to FAQs.