Why We Must Protect Funding for the Arts

The Avenue in the Rain (1917) by Childe Hassam. Part of the White House’s permanent art collection.

“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.” – John F. Kennedy

The National Endowment for the Arts (along with its sibling agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities) was established by Congress 1965 as the fulfillment of a Kennedy-era dream to support and encourage the development of American art. It also set out to correct inequity in access for the arts in low income and African American communities and bring the arts out of the ivory towers and to all Americans.

More than 50 years later, though hobbled by decreased funding and dogged by political attacks, the NEA still provides an essential service to our nation. Today, the vast majority of audiences for plays, symphonies, readings and exhibitions are middle/upper class, middle-aged, white, and living in affluent urban communities. And though private funding keeps these cultural meccas alive, struggling artists in rural towns, young people, and minorities are far less likely to have access to money from foundations and wealthy donors to make arts programming possible.

The NEA steps in to level the playing field. In 2016, the NEA helped to provide 23,000 grants in 5,000 communities, which reached every congressional district in the United States. That funding turned into 30,000 concerts, readings, performances and exhibitions that were seen by a staggering 20 million people. The NEA also supports arts education in our schools, with 50% of its education projects located in low income neighborhoods.

The president’s proposed budget aims to eviscerate this important work by completely eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These cuts are proposed as a way of reigning in a bloated federal government, but these programs are only a drop in the bucket. The NEA accounts for only $148 million, or 0.012% of the total $3.65 trillion federal budget. By contrast, Trump is calling for a $50 billion increase in defense spending. Cutting the NEA is purely symbolic and does nothing to balance the federal budget.

Even from a purely economic point of view, funding the arts makes sense. The arts industry employs 4.7 million people and contributes $698 billion to the U.S. economy (4.3% of GDP). That’s more than the construction, transportation, or warehousing industries and is an excellent investment of our tax dollars.

We must protect our federal arts funding. And we must fight to preserve it from those who see more value in a fighter jet than a one-act play. We must declare loudly that the arts matter and we must do it now—before it is too late.

“I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.” – John F. Kennedy.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, filmmaker and arts advocate. Call your congressional representatives and tell them not to defund the NEA: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/. You can find more rants on Twitter or subscribe to the email newsletter.

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