It’s official: if Donald Trump has his way, the arts will suffer—bigly. The president’s proposed budget, unveiled yesterday, calls for the elimination of federal funding to several arts and humanities organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts. Coupled with the defunding of the NEH, that would shave a mere $148 million off his proposed $1.15 trillion budget. It’s a minuscule amount, one that would save Americans just forty-six cents each per year.
Calling art “a nation’s most precious heritage,” President Lyndon Johnson created America’s federal arts-funding organizations in 1965, and Republican resistance was not instantaneous. The newly reelected Richard Nixon expanded arts funding in 1973; he believed strongly that government had a role to play in promoting the arts. Even as Reagan, inveighing against the politicization of the arts by Jimmy Carter and his ilk, promised to “restore integrity” to the federal arts institutions, he still acknowledged their importance. But by 1992, with the culture wars begun in earnest, the GOP platform condemned the use of public money to “subsidize obscenity and blasphemy masquerading as art,” a clear reference to controversial works like Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” and the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. By 1996 it was calling for the privatization or defunding of the NEA, the NEH, and others it considered “obsolete, redundant, of limited value, or too regional in focus.”
With Trump in the Oval Office and Republicans firmly in control of Congress, Republicans finally have a chance to make good on this goal. If Trump is successful, the impact of these cuts is sure to be felt across the arts nationwide—and quite heavily in this state. In the 2016–17 fiscal year, the NEA issued forty-seven grants to organizations in North Carolina. They range from small local organizations buoyed by $10,000 grants to major cultural institutions awarded much larger sums. The Alamance City Arts Council, for example, took in $10,000 to promote arts engagement via pop-events in several disciplines, while the Durham Arts Council was awarded $100,000 for arts funding for the City Center district as part of the SmART Corridor initiative. The North Carolina Arts Council, which received $957,300 in NEA funds this year would suffer the largest monetary loss in the state under the arts-free Trump budget.
That $957,300 represents 10 percent of its budget, says Wayne Martin, the organization’s executive director. According to Martin, the NEA money goes for programs that have obvious public value, citing large-scale projects like the SmART Initiative downtown revitalization project and the Wilson Whirligig Park, which has already attracted at least $25 million in private investment around the park. He also mentions smaller-scale initiatives—like the Junior Appalachian Musicians, a fifteen-year-old after-school program where students learn from masters of the music of western Carolina, and the North Carolina Heritage Award program for artists and artist fellowships—among worthy, time-tested programs that would face the chopping block.
“The NEA has been around for more than fifty years, and now, if it were taken away, to me it’s really penalizing our state, because it’s through the NEA that we use these funds to improve our quality of life,” Martin says. “NEA’s budget is a speck in the federal budget. Those funds are very important for us and for our arts partners across the state. They translate into economic development, helping students do well in school and later on in life, helping cities and towns revitalize themselves. It seems really obvious to me that that small investment is yielding big returns for North Carolina.”
Durham’s internationally recognized American Dance Festival has taken in $140,000 from the NEA over the past two years to fund the presentation of dance companies from around the world, along with educational and outreach initiatives. Jodee Nimerichter, ADF’s executive director, says the elimination of the NEA would be a terrible loss.
“Clearly we’d have to reevaluate programming,” she says. “The NEA is one of the largest grants that we get. And it is increasingly difficult to find large alternative grants as foundations have shifted their funding priorities. I think for ADF it would be a drastic hit. Is it gonna eliminate the American Dance Festival? I would certainly hope not. We would have to readjust. But the impact it would have on all arts organizations, and the American people who are touched by all the incredible programs and activities that are possible through NEA support, would be devastating.”
Nevertheless, Nimerichter is hopeful. “The best thing is, with the arts, not only are there incredibly articulate and smart people, but they are so passionate, so everybody has hit the ground running, sending letters to legislators, making phone calls. I think the arts audience and arts staffers and artists themselves are ready for action.”