Susan Schmelzer on Arts Policy: Who Would Steal the Arts?

Hope lies in a simple truism: Public funding of art is not a partisan issue. In fact, both parties have supported the NEA throughout its entire history, and party affiliation of the administration has not been a significant factor.

Writing a column on public policy for a bi-monthly publication has its challenges. In today’s reality, one can’t wake up in the morning without a surprise, and simple conclusions can become obsolete overnight.

At this writing, Donald Trump is the president, and he has submitted a budget which  completely eliminates the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities and defunds the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In Trump’s own words, “To the victor belongs the spoils.” (sic) But, defunding the arts?  Really? Dr. Seuss’s Grinch himself couldn’t be more of a spoiler! As a matter of fact, the Grinch, who famously stole Christmas from the Whos in Who-ville, called it “The crescendo of my odious opus.”  Seems apropos.

In a meeting with local arts executives last month, I found genuine alarm, even though public funds represent very small portions of their individual organizations’ budgets. “The art that we produce today is how our civilization will be remembered in the future. So, investing in the arts is caring for our legacy, in our shared humanity,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO & Director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Whatever portends, it’s worth a look at this little sliver of the budget and how completely defunding arts got to the table in President Trump’s first 30 days.   In 2016, the two endowments were appropriated $148 million each, (about the same as in 1979), which along with $445 million to Public Broadcasting came to $741 million — or less than one tenth of one percent of a $3.54 trillion federal budget.  Way too small to be seen on any graph of the budget!  Forty percent of NEA’s budget goes directly to support arts councils in each state; however, Kansas stands alone in not providing enough funding to qualify for those funds.  In Missouri, the 2016 NEA contribution was $729,700 — too much to lose.

In 1992, when the NEA reached its peak funding of $175,954,680 of a mere $1.9 trillion budget, a backlash against governmental support of the arts was under way, and that backlash has festered in certain political segments clear through the 2017 election. The notion that art should not be allowed to offend, was in part a reaction to NEA funding of “elitist” and even “obscene” projects, including renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s “The Perfect Moment” at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center.

The center was acquitted of pornography charges, but it was then that the seed of contempt was planted, and it keeps on sprouting. Subsequently, the NEA adjusted its funding selection to be controlled primarily through regional and local arts councils, with congressional input. But the arts remain an easy target of some populists and political moralists.

The current defunding threat is championed by several influential religious right organizations, including the Heritage Foundation, and is clearly positioned on their websites as morality legislation.

While this ideal of protecting everyone from what is offensive to some underlies the Trump team’s threat, many are suggesting it is just a belt-tightening measure. Sorry, Charlie, $741 million won’t even get you one notch in your belt. As yet another tactic, “Wall Street Journal” columnist Patrick Courrielche was swift to endorse elimination of the NEA for not doing its job (“Save the Arts by Ending the Endowment”). In a firm response, Americans for the Arts CEO, Robert Lynch, pointed out in a Feb. 3 letter to “The New York Times,” “The NEA’s investment in every Congressional District in the country contributes to a $704 billion arts and culture industry in America, representing 4.2% of the annual GDP. This arts and culture industry supports 4.7 million jobs and yields a $24 million trade surplus for our country.”

It seems to me that’s a pretty good return!

Hope lies in a simple truism: Public funding of art is not a partisan issue. While NEA opposition comes primarily from Republicans, it is not, by any means, from the majority of Republicans. In fact, both parties have supported the NEA throughout its entire history, and party affiliation of the administration has not been a significant factor.

As the appropriations committee begins its look at the Trump budget, there is hope from the moderate Republicans who are already speaking up in defense of the arts. Some pro-arts red states, like Nebraska, are locking in congressional delegates to oppose defunding. According to a 1999 study by Princeton University’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, voters consistently poll in favor of increased arts funding, though support is typically shallow, meaning we don’t take defunding seriously, while the relatively small opposition runs deep. That trend line has not changed in recent elections. We go along thinking nobody would really steal the good things in life, like art, literature and . . . Christmas.

It must have been a morning surprise on Jan. 27 for President Trump to read this tweet by none other than his soon-to-be Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson: “An artless nation is a spiritless nation, which is detrimental to the wisdom required for international diplomacy and government. I encourage the President of the United States to continue funding the NEA and NEH so we may represent the great American spirit abroad in the years to come.”

We’re all obligated to join Mr. Tillerson in speaking up by contacting our senators and representatives and asking them to preserve arts funding.   The time is now.   Let’s sing out loud like the folks in Who-ville and make Mr Trump know that his heart is too small.

Above: illustration by Jason Needham

About The Author: Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer is a community activist who has served in leadership roles on several boards, currently including the Executive Committee of Missourians Citizens for the Arts, which advocates for state arts funding. Her devotion to the arts began as a vocal music major, while her professional background spans careers in higher education and nonprofit consulting.


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