Why federal support for the arts matters

 Modern ballet dancers (Big Stock File Photo)

Modern ballet dancers (Big Stock File Photo)

Just before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, The Hill — a news organization that covers Congress — reported the incoming administration planned to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities). A month later, The New York Times confirmed the White House budget office had placed the NEA on a “hit list.”

Many who work in arts advocacy felt like those grandmothers at the Women’s March last month, who trudged through D.C. carrying signs that read: “I can’t believe I still have to protest this stuff.”

The NEA recently celebrated its 50th year supporting the arts — and its 35th as a target of budget hawks. Ronald Reagan was the first president to suggest eliminating the agency, in 1981. It came under fire in 1989, in response to its support of controversial photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe, and in 1990, for funding avant-garde performance artists like Karen Finley. Newt Gingrich called for its elimination in 1994.

But the NEA still exists — and that’s because there are so many good, thoroughly nonpartisan reasons to keep it going.

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That’s why Reagan, after suggesting the elimination of the NEA, later went on to bump up its budget to record highs — partly at the urging of his friend, that notorious liberal, Charlton Heston.

Although the Trump administration is suggesting dissolving the agency to trim the budget, getting rid of the NEA is a terribly inefficient way to reach that goal. The $147.9 million the NEA gets from the federal government is 0.004 percent of federal outlays. It’s like trying to balance a household budget by cutting back on postage stamps.

“Those programs,” Steve Bell, the former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, told The New York Times last week, “aren’t causing the deficit. These programs don’t amount to a hill of beans.”

What is efficient? The NEA itself. The agency takes its tiny slice of federal money and turns it into a windfall for communities across the country.

See, the NEA doesn’t really pay for all that much art.

As Dana Goia, chair of the NEA under George W. Bush, said in a recent interview with NPR: “The NEA does not subsidize the American arts — it doesn’t have enough money to subsidize anybody.”

What it does do, is give arts organizations a major selling point — the imprimatur of the federal government. Even if a grant itself is so small it won’t get the painting hung on the wall, or the dancers into their pointe shoes, it will serve as a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a sign that an arts organization is worth supporting. With the ability to boast of an NEA acknowledgement, arts organizations can raise much more money from private donors.

The NEA estimates that, on average, its grantees raise $9 for every $1 of federal funding they are awarded.

The power of that money, cumulatively, is extraordinary; arts organizations revive the fortunes of inner cities and small rural towns; arts programming improves academic outcomes for children; art therapy treats veterans suffering from PTSD. And those programs are the kinds that NEA grants fund, in addition to the things you might think of when you hear of the arts — the New Jersey’s Ballet’s “Nutcracker” performances, children’s plays at the Growing Stage, and symphony orchestras performing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

And arts programs yield, per the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, a whopping $22.3 billion per year in revenue to local and state governments. Let that sink in: The NEA spends less than $150 million on the arts — and the arts send more than $22 billion back. All investments should be so profitable.

Plus, NEA grants go to every corner of the country, funding programs in every congressional district. A full 40 percent of its money goes to state arts organizations, like the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, so that local administrators can choose which local arts programs to fund — very nearly a small-r republican ideal.

As Anne Marie Miller, director of advocacy at the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation points out, a state like New Jersey pours far more money into federal coffers than it gets back. The roughly $2 million the NEA sends to the Garden State is a source of funding for the state well worth retaining.

Miller is hopeful, though, that the NEA will survive this challenge as it has those past; for one thing, she points out, the president does not set the federal budget, but rather Congress — even if the president does set the “broad brush strokes” of his party’s policy.

And in New Jersey, “we have been very, very fortunate, our Republican congress people have been supportive of the arts,” she says.

Still, she says, she’s “concerned” by recent reports. And so are arts administrators. We know one surefire way to keep the NEA doing its good and efficient job: Speak up. Let your congressman or senator know what the NEA truly accomplishes, and that you support its goals. It’s not a matter of partisan policy; it’s a matter of doing a lot of good, for a lot of people, for very little money. Hopefully that’s the kind of smart deal President Trump will see can truly make America even greater.

John Schreiber is the president and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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