Losing the NEA? How President Trump’s Budget Could Affect Arts Programs in Your Community

By Tessa Smith

Two months into his presidency, Donald Trump has released “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” The 2018 fiscal year budget plan sent shockwaves through arts and culture circles because the proposal calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), among other independent agencies that receive federal funding.

The March 16 blueprint presents a clear aim: to “reprioritize federal spending so that it advances the safety and security of the American people.”

With the exception of The Department of Defense (DOD), The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the blueprint asks Congress to decrease funding to every major federal agency.

The proposal requests a $54 billion increase for DOD and other national defense efforts, and a $44.1 and $4.4 billion increase in discretionary funding to DHS and VA, respectively.

But the proposed budget has art lovers and advocates asking ‘what will happen if a major cultural agency is not supported at the federal level?’

“What’s concerning is that the elimination of institutions like the NEA will certainly have ripple effects on the health and vibrancy of our country for years to come,” says Jane Cheung, VP of Programs at the Pablove Foundation. “We know that the Arts are a bi-partisan issue and the Arts play an important role in a healthy, thriving society. The NEA at the macro level can be seen as a symbol of the United States’ support of creative communities and freedom of artistic expression across the country.”

Cheung, who also serves on Artsmith’s advisory council, oversees philanthropic initiatives at the Pablove Foundation and knows firsthand the NEA’s impact. The agency supports the foundation’s work to bring arts programming to children who are undergoing cancer treatment across the United States.

Who are the players?

52 years ago, the NEA came into existence under President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, which sought to make the United States a creative powerhouse and to promote scholarship in the humanities. Over the past 36 years, the NEA has come under heavy criticism from republicans who argue that the agency has misused federal appropriations by supporting offensive projects and that it largely benefits the “cultural elite” rather than the underserved populations it says it reaches.

The Trump administration has essentially labeled the NEA as one of many unnecessary governmental add-ons draining money from the U.S. treasury.

“It’s a question of value. It’s a misguided assumption on the president’s part that the NEA and other targeted organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting hold little value for the American people,” says Cheung.

The NEA reports that a significant percentage of the federally issued funds go to diverse artists and programs that have fewer opportunities to participate in the arts:

• 40% of NEA-supported activities take place in high-poverty neighborhoods.

• 36% of NEA grants go to organizations that reach underserved populations such as people with disabilities, people in institutions, and veterans.

• 33% of NEA grants serve low-income audiences.

What is at stake?

Trump’s budget blueprint champions military might, advocating for one of the largest increases in defense spending. The idea is that eliminating some programs and trimming others would free up funds for national security and drive the remaining programs “to achieve greater efficiency and to eliminate wasteful spending.” But many in the arts community believe that the NEA is too valuable to abolish. “What the administration is overlooking is the fact that the NEA supports a tremendous amount of smaller projects in rural communities across the country, not just large metropolitan cities, or “elite” institutions that could presumably cover their costs through wealthy donors,” Cheung explains. Opponents of the budget proposal argue that terminating the NEA would not result in significant savings for the US budget. “Eliminating the NEA is largely symbolic since it takes up such a minuscule amount of the national budget,” says Cheung. According to the NEA, their “FY2016 appropriation of $147.9 million constitutes approximately .004 percent of the federal budget.”

Why does the NEA matter?

If the Trump administration’s proposal is approved hundreds of cultural programs will lose financial backing.

While some say that the Arts would continue to flourish without the NEA, arts organizations are highlighting the benefits of creative industry within the national economy.

“Americans for the Arts, the largest non-profit organization in the country in support of the Arts…have done a great job of framing the Arts as vital to our economy, and advocating that the Arts in fact infuse hundreds of millions of dollars to local communities and thousands of jobs in cities, small towns, and rural areas alike,” Cheung explains.

When will the new budget go into effect?

The budget must go through the appropriations process before it is approved on October 1, 2017. Meanwhile, the Trump administration plans to release a full budget later this spring. The budget will include a more detailed fiscal structure including tax proposals.

Where will the impact be felt?

The NEA is the only federal agency that provides funding to arts programs in all 50 states and all congressional districts. New York City is a major recipient of NEA funding. According to a report from NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer’s Office, from 2000 to 2016, New York City’s cultural nonprofits received $233.2 million from the agency. More than $21 million went to arts education programs.

The agency’s influence hits even closer to home. In 2017, the NEA awarded grants to Bronx organizations including Bronx Council on the Arts, the Bronx Documentary Center and the Bronx Museum of the Arts – organizations that allocate a portion of their grant money directly towards community-based initiatives.

How can you help?

In an official response to the Budget Blueprint Chairman of the NEA, Jane Chu, said that the agency would continue its work until a new budget was approved. She also called on supporters to talk about the NEA’s contributions nationwide.

Federal agencies are prohibited from using federal funds to engage in any type of lobbying efforts to influence Congress’ decisions on appropriations. But thousands of people already are speaking up for NEA and the Arts.

“The most practical way [to support the Arts] would be to add your name to the Americans for the Arts Action Fund — it’s a free sign up that aims to build a movement of one million arts advocates across the country,” says Cheung. “They also give practical tips on how to advocate for the Arts with your elected representatives. Your elected officials are there to serve their constituents, which means that you are the boss!”

Add your name to Americans for the Arts Action Fund here.

“Finally, we can all donate to our local arts organizations like Artsmith! Every dollar counts, and there is nothing greater than supporting arts non-profits that have a direct impact on individuals and change lives for the better,” says Cheung.

Tessa Smith is an Antiguan-born, NYC-based writer and supporter of the Arts. For more of her work follow her on Instagram @thefringes