Fear of Creativity: National Endowment for the Arts Threatened

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Like a few other federally-funded organizations, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is feared to be on the chopping block for President Trump’s new federal budget. The NEA was created by Congress in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson as a way to balance provisions for the arts after heavily investing in science with the National Science Foundation and other federally-financed institutions. Although it’s survived many presidencies over the course of 50 years, now the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee in the House of Representatives have recommended that President Trump eliminate the NEA as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities in the new White House budget. These groups have been after the NEA for years, using the rationale that the federal government has no business funding the arts or humanities.

When confronted with reporters’ questions about it, White House officials haven’t even mentioned the NEA. Last week, all Press Secretary Sean Spicer said was that Trump wants to ensure the federal government “spends money more responsibly.” The NEA is avoiding jumping to any conclusions, but many arts organizations and agencies are taking up arms, encouraging the public to reach out to their congressmen and women and advocate their support.

Critics of the NEA fear that taxpayers’ dollars are going toward elitist, leftist institutions and feeding into a sinister system of cultural superiority headed by the super-rich. But Dana Goia, a past chairman of the NEA, has said that for a nation of 319 million people, the allotted federal money does not go very far. In his Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, “For the umpteenth time, the National Endowment for the Arts deserves its funding,” Goia said that the funds are used more as a catalyst to get arts organizations and programs started.

Instead of providing large lump sums, the NEA gives out an average of 2,100 small grants each year, according to Goia. Each grant usually requires the recipient to match or double the amount with local fundraising.

Funding is going to small, grassroots community groups, often in disadvantaged neighborhoods or rural places that don’t benefit from local museums and art centers.

Eliminating the NEA as a way of freeing up funds is fairly redundant, as their budget has only decreased in recent years. If re-allocated to some other institution or agency, their $148 million budget isn’t going to do much. It makes up just .003 percent of America’s four trillion dollar federal spending. To compare to other costs, The Washington Post cited that it takes $500,000 a day to post security guards at Trump Tower, adding up to $183 million per year, far more than the NEA’s budget.

In the meantime, arts groups, newspapers and blogs all over the nation are telling their stories about how the NEA has allowed them to build a community of greater creativity and compassion.

Looking locally, the LAist published a piece entitled “What Eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts Would Mean For Lost Angeles,” a few weeks ago. They reported that in 2015, “the NEA provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to the city that were used throughout the greater L.A. area, many of which aided low-income neighborhoods with artistic pursuits that would have otherwise perished without the agency’s grants.” California is one of the biggest recipients of NEA’s funds, receiving $9,737,600 in 2016 according to USA Today’s analysis of data from that year’s U.S. Census estimates.

The list of groups affected by the NEA is long but here are a few that have been awarded: Art High, which provides after-school visual arts education in Northwest Pasadena and East L.A., the Department of Cultural Affairs “Our Town” grant that provides public art, performing arts programming and multimedia installations, KCET radio, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture, apprenticeships in Mexican mariachi and the Autry National Center of the American West’s Native Voices theater program.

The NEA as a federal agency is effective and beneficial. The real problem that its opponents have is the support of the arts in general. Not believing in (let alone prioritizing) the arts is a dangerous path that limits modes of expression, alternative careers and, at its core, ways of understanding each other. The arts encompass all the things in life that we value — love, beauty, freedom, family — in ways that transcend national, political, and cultural boundaries. Without federal funding, the arts will not disappear entirely, but some people — the people who are often neglected simply because of their socioeconomic position — will not get to experience them.

Nicole Block is a fourth-year literary journalism and art history double major. She can be reached at blockn@uci.edu

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