Diplomat Nikki Haley Says Emergency Aid for the Arts Doesn’t Help People. Here’s Why She’s Dead Wrong

People who work for arts organizations are real people with real jobs.

Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley visits Fox & Friends on November 12, 2019 in New York City. Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images.

Today, Congress moved to pass a record-breaking economic stimulus package amid the heartbreak and chaos of the United States’s ongoing coronavirus crisis. Meanwhile, politician Nikki Haley took a moment out of her day to use the occasion to stoke the fires of conservative attacks on government art support.

Specifically, Haley, who served as Trump’s UN ambassador until 2018 and is now a prominent fundraiser and Republican surrogate, shot off a tweet denouncing the tiny emergency funding bumps given to the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Kennedy Center as irresponsible.

This type of culture war posturing is as predictable as it is contemptible right now.

Before Armageddon hit, I had just published a piece laying out a long response to renewed attacks on the NEA. The idea that arts funding is “welfare for elites” is an old, old talking point. Reaching for it is a Pavlovian reflex for conservatives. It serves a purpose: to distract from giveaways to corporations and rich people by framing the real problem as lazy cultural elites living off the fat of government subsidies.

It’s also no mystery why Haley, who has political ambitions and an eye on the future, would be banging this drum now. She emerged on the political scene through the Tea Party, and the Tea Party came up denouncing the 2009 stimulus as a giveaway to the lazy. That was how the Republican party found a popular base again after George W. Bush was flushed from office in disgrace amid the Great Recession.

President Donald Trump complements Nikki Haley after she announced her plan to resign as United Nations ambassador on October 9, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Calla Kessler/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

President Donald Trump complements Nikki Haley after she announced her plan to resign as United Nations ambassador on October 9, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Calla Kessler/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Haley’s fixation on this particular bugbear is somewhat rich in the context of a $2 trillion emergency federal aid package. The measly amounts of stimulus awarded to our already anemic government art agencies are so small as to really only matter symbolically.

The American Alliance of Museums had asked for a $4 billion relief package—ambitious but justifiable given the absolutely unprecedented crisis faced by shuttered arts organizations. “We estimate as many as 30 percent of museums, mostly in small and rural communities, will not re-open without significant and immediate emergency financial assistance,” the advocacy group wrote.

House Democrats originally included $300 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and another $300 million to the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the final package, it was whittled down to $75 million each.

To give you a sense of how inadequate this is: New York’s Metropolitan Museum alone says it will take a $100 million loss from coronavirus closures, and have to lay employees off. Across the country, layoffs have already begun, at museums, performance venues, theaters, music festivals. “The majority of organizations don’t have a plan B,” Zannie Voss, the director of Southern Methodist University’s DataArts resource told my colleagues Julia Halperin and Javier Pes in their article about the current museum crisis.

“How many more people could have been helped with this money?”, Haley fumes in her tweet, evidently trying to play the “how can we think of art in a time like this” card.

Let me give an example that might hit a little closer to home about the kinds of people emergency art support might help.

The 2013 festival opened on May 24, 2013, with a ceremony at Charleston's City Hall. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The 2013 festival opened on May 24, 2013, with a ceremony at Charleston’s City Hall. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In South Carolina, where Haley was governor from 2011 to 2017, the Spoleto Festival each year brings opera, theater, dance, and jazz to venues across Charleston. The pandemic has already forced the festival to call off its May opening.

“This is truly heartbreaking for our artists, volunteers, staff, and audience,” Spoleto wrote on social media, “however, to continue plans in the face of #COVID19 would be irresponsible.”

What effect will that have? One estimate by the College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis put its annual economic footprint as something like $42 million. Leaving aside the larger economic impact, in recent decades the festival has supported some 20 full-time employees and 600 seasonal employees, according to board chair M. Edward Sellers, writing in an article for the Post and Courier. That’s not to mention the performers whose living is entertaining at events like this.

Those are real people with real jobs, who have had a chunk of their livelihood wrenched away from them right now—through no fault of their own.

Sellers, it so happens, laid out those statistics about the festival in an article defending the National Endowment for the Arts. “I can say that Spoleto would not have started were it not for the NEA,” he wrote. A $35,000 grant got the festival off the ground back in 1975. It now receives funding from the South Carolina Arts Commission, which gets money from the NEA.

If similar grants can help arts organizations through a horrible, scarring time now, isn’t that worth it?

Or is the temptation of cynical and ignorant point-scoring too great, even in a disaster?

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