10 Practical Reasons Why We Need to Fund—and Defend—the National Endowment for the Arts

The most common arguments against the NEA, and answers to them.

Protestors hold signs in protest of proposed cuts to culture funding by the Trump administration. Photo Henri Neuendorf.
Protestors hold signs in protest of proposed cuts to culture funding by the Trump administration. Photo Henri Neuendorf.

The Heritage Foundation and conservative groups like it have been trying to kill the National Endowment for the Arts for decades.

Last month, the Trump administration, for the fourth year in a row, released a budget blueprint that proposed zeroing out and winding down the NEA and other government art support. Heritage basically staffed the current Trump administration, so it’s not a coincidence that his budget priorities are essentially those of the anti-government think tank, which is almost as passionate about ending the NEA as it is about undermining the science on climate change.

Perhaps with everything going on right now, and with the NEA having squeaked by before, the sense of urgency around the issue has drained. You can’t just go on writing passionate defenses of it year after year. Then too, today’s NEA itself, as even its critics acknowledge, is not exactly a behemoth of radical interventionist government to get inspired by. Nevertheless, it is worth defending.

The Heritage Foundation is still promoting its 1997 report authored by “distinguished fellow” Laurence Jarvik, titled “Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts,” as the definitive source on “why there is no need for the federal government to be spending your money on these programs.” It remains a go-to reference in debates today, and its language has sunk into the ground water of conservative argument about the NEA—which is, after all, the job of a conservative think tank.

And actually, as a distillation of anti-NEA talking points, I find it useful. I think it’s important for NEA advocates to actually understand the spectrum of arguments ranged against them, and not rely on dated or off-target counter-arguments. So I thought I would put down, here, replies to each of Heritage’s “Ten Reasons.”

 

Anti-NEA Talking Point #1: The Arts Will Have More Than Enough Support Without the NEA

Reply: Defenders of the NEA often use the talking point that its funding accounts for a very, very small amount of the budget: something like 0.0004 percent. But foes can turn this around: What is paltry is easy to cut. Trump’s 2021 budget proposal says explicitly that the NEA and NEH “make up only a small fraction of the billions spent each year by arts and humanities nonprofit organizations.”

But the NEA was never designed to replace private support. The very second item of National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 states this clearly: “The encouragement and support of national progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts, while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, are also appropriate matters of concern to the Federal Government.”

After signing a bill renaming the proposed National Cultural Center the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts here at the White House today, president Johnson hands one of the pens he used to senator Edward M. Kennedy. Photo courtesy Getty Images.

After signing a bill renaming the proposed National Cultural Center the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts here at the White House today, president Johnson hands one of the pens he used to senator Edward M. Kennedy. Photo courtesy Getty Images.

Instead the NEA was designed to help correct for the biases of private support. It was hatched in 1964, the same year Dylan penned The Times They Are a Changin’, and it was very much of a piece with the spirit of Johnson’s Great Society. That is, the idea was that government action could be used to correct some of the problems that, left to itself, the US’s affluent society—then in the middle of a historic boom, but simmering with unrest—let fester.

The emphasis, as you can read in its first report of 1964-65, was that the arts ought to be recognized “as a vital part of our national life, and not a luxury.” The initial commission that studied it had come to the conclusion that the relentless focus on practical subjects in education had led to widespread discontent with the materialism of US society. It thus focused on expanding access to the arts and funding ideas and artworks deemed vital but not necessarily profitable.

Let’s not be naïve about it: much like the Johnson Administration’s eventual support of the Civil Rights Act, the passage of the NEA was also meant as a chess move in the Cold War. Capitalist America was in ideological competition with the Soviet Union for global hegemony, and trying to cut against the image of the US on the world stage as a bigoted, rapaciously materialist society served an objective. The act itself made its propaganda value clear: “The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.”

Flashing forward, that background impetus for government art funding helps explain why it was after the Cold War ended in the late ‘80s that the NEA came under withering attack, as US politicians no longer felt the same ideological need to soften the image of capitalism to the world; capitalism had become the only game in town. Since then, conservatives have either demonized or let the NEA go to seed. In 1990, the NEA’s budget was $171 million, which after inflation adds up to something like $338 million; for 2020, it’s $162 million.

But the problems that it was set up to address—the construal of art as a “luxury” when left just to private patronage, and major gaps in access to creative resources in a wealthy but very unequal society—definitely remain. And through its modest grant-giving today, the NEA still does what it was designed to do: attempt to foster access to the arts for people of many different kinds, mainly through supporting non-profit institutions that can use the lift.

 

Anti-NEA Talking Point #2: The NEA Is Welfare for Cultural Elitists

Reply: The NEA was founded in the ‘60s with a rhetoric of promoting “progressive” and “experimental” art, and took heat afterwards for discriminating against realists. In the late ‘80s, it became a flashpoint of public controversy, with “artists” proving easy to demonize as godless deviants.

But honestly, all this is a very dated idea of what the NEA does. The NEA is quite self-consciously populist in focus these days. It boasts of promoting such initiatives as the Creative Forces program, a partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs that, as its website states, “increases access to community arts activities to promote health, wellness, and quality of life for military service members, veterans, and their families and caregivers.”

Colonel Michael S. Heimall, director of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center; Rusty Noesner, Retired US Navy SEAL; Jane Chu, Chairman of the NEA; Captain Walt Greenhalgh, director of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE); and commander Wendy Pettit, Chief of Clinical Operations, National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) hold up masks made by service men and women in the Creative Forces program. Image courtesy National Endowment for the Arts.

Colonel Michael S. Heimall, director of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center; Rusty Noesner, Retired US Navy SEAL; Jane Chu, Chairman of the NEA; Captain Walt Greenhalgh, director of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE); and commander Wendy Pettit, Chief of Clinical Operations, National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) hold up masks made by service men and women in the Creative Forces program. Image courtesy National Endowment for the Arts.

Last September, the Jacksonville Daily News reported on an Open Studio exhibition for Creative Forces, which gives a sense of the hoity-toity audience it serves. “It’s like a safe space for me; a place I can go and express myself,” Army vet Robert “Shrek” Harrell, an artist in the show, said of the Creative Forces program. “It gives me time to be with myself in my mind, and gives me some peace and a way to heal.”

The NEA also supports Challenge America, a program specifically designed to give a helping hand to communities that might otherwise not have access to art programming—i.e., it is specifically targeted at non-elite communities.

Just as an example, we are talking about a grant for North Carolina’s Tsali Care Center to support artists from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to offer art classes to the nursing home’s residents (who are also generally tribal members). Or a grant to support an art exhibition and other programming for a Dia de Los Muertos festival in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Or a grant for the Georgia Mountain Storytelling Festival in Blairsville, Georgia, which showcases “traditional and contemporary Appalachian stories.”

All of these seem extremely worthy, and difficult to frame as welfare for elitists.

I actually don’t love making such arguments, because I think that there ought to be room to fund art that isn’t directly justified as community service.

But what I think is very important to stress is that the NEA is modestly redistributive. Private philanthropy is notoriously unequal, flowing to flashy showpiece institutions and pooling in localities where rich people are concentrated. The art market is even more a direct reflection of the concentration of wealth, and wealth has never been more concentrated.

“Low-dollar and mid-level donors have declined by about two percent each year for more than fifteen years,” one report on trends in philanthropy found recently. The result was “an increased bias toward funding heavily major-donor-directed boutique organizations and projects.” And so you get the mega-project of the Shed in New York’s luxury shopping playground Hudson Yards, with its flashy “Bloomberg Building,” at the very moment that the comparatively ultra-modest but beloved Bushwick nonprofit NURTUREart has to shut down due to a “confluence of resource challenges and a shifting environment for non-profits.”

On this level, the argument for a National Endowment for the Arts is clearer now then it has ever been. Compared to when the NEA was founded, the United States has grown drastically more spatially unequal, with certain big cities and regions sucking up investment and cultural amenities. Even experts who argue that the NEA should be even more narrowly focused on small, non-elite institutions—I’m thinking of Diane Ragsdale—stress that NEA funding tends to be more equally distributed, since that’s part of its mandate, and also see it as a potential instrument for correcting for otherwise dire trends in private giving.

But don’t take my word for it. Trump’s NEA secretary, Mary Anne Carter, made the case well last year:

For every county in America that has a high school, National Endowment for the Arts is there, either through our Poetry Out Loud competition or our Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge. The same cannot be said for private foundations. A review of the art giving of the top 1000, yes, 1000 private foundations shows that those private dollars don’t reach 65% of American counties. In contrast, the National Endowment for the Arts is in 779 more counties than private foundations.

779 counties, 25% of America where the National Endowment for the Arts provides funding where the top 1000 private foundations do not.

A few examples: in Kentucky there are 59 counties that receive funding from us that have no private dollars out of 120 counties. In Alabama 40, in South Carolina ten, Alaska eight, and in my home state of Tennessee 21 counties with our funding but no funding from the top 1000 private foundations.

Access to arts funding should not depend on one’s proximity to private philanthropy. This is what makes support of the National Endowment for the Arts indispensable.

Anti-NEA Talking Point #3: The NEA Discourages Charitable Gifts to the Arts

Reply: This is a bit of a wonky debate, but argument rages over whether government funding of the arts “crowds out” or “crowds in” private funding. Supporters like to say that the NEA serves as a “Good Housekeeping” seal, encouraging donations from private foundations, corporations, and individuals, an effect that certainly feels true to a lot of small organizations who use an NEA grant to attract the attention of other potential backers.

When the new attempt at termination was announced last month, an NEA spokesperson told my colleague Eileen Kinsella that its grants “are leveraged by other public and private contributions up to 9:1, significantly increasing the impact of the federal investment.” (Indeed, its grants generally require securing matching funds.)

Opponents such as the Heritage Foundation like to say that government support merely “crowds out” private funders, who will take their money somewhere where they think it is more needed if the government is present. And any “Good Housekeeping” effect, they say, simply shifts patronage that would go to one organization to another organization, rather than encouraging additional giving.

I actually find it baffling to try to boil this down to a universal law. For instance: private giving went up in the ‘90s after the cuts to the NEA caused by the Culture Wars. Does that therefore prove, as some economists have argued, that government arts funding had previously been “crowding out” private patronage?

I don’t think so, because a) the increase in private funding happened during a huge economic boom that lasted the entire decade, and b) the spectacular public character of the Culture Wars debates that led to the NEA cut framed it in the public mind as a needy cause worthy of supporting, with copious PR points and good vibes going to the private philanthropists who stepped in as Congress cut funding. (The way the researchers put this, in their charmingly inscrutable way, is that “publicity” has a “non-linear impact” on the public-private funding calculation.)

When an economic crisis hit in the early 2000s and progressive concern recentered around the Iraq War, the conversation moved on: “Data from the Conference Board for 2000 to 2010 suggest that corporate funding for the arts dropped by half after inflation over this period.” And that’s not really because George W. Bush’s NEA stepped back in to crowd it out. The NEA was still down by a third from its heights after inflation at decade’s end.

A final note: Even if there is a fixed pie of private arts funding, and the “signal” of an NEA grant simply shifts those donations around, it does not follow that this cannot be a useful operation. Larger, well-endowed institutions are easier able to court donors and to frame themselves as winners. The “Seal of Approval” from the NEA most benefits small institutions who don’t otherwise have major marketing budgets or pre-existing networks of big donors to tap into, providing a way to signal, “Hey, this organization is doing good work—might you consider shifting some money from that wealthy, well-established organization to a smaller but critically acclaimed one?”

 

Anti-NEA Talking Point #4: The NEA Lowers the Quality of American Art

Reply: Heritage quotes a management professor on the evils of state arts funding: “It was the unsubsidized writers, painters, and musicians—imprisoned in their homes if they were lucky, in asylums or in gulags if they weren’t—who created lasting culture.”

Aside from being comically over the top (“giving $10,000 grants to small nonprofits is the royal road to totalitarianism!”), this declaration is on-its-face wrong, unless you don’t count Velázquez or Bernini as “lasting culture.” Most of the things you see in museums were subsidized by royal courts or papal authorities in one way or another.

But I value the modern “artist as dissident” figure too. Does government art funding necessarily turn artists into mediocre propagandists?

The “New Deal produced no true masterpieces,” Heritage reports, using the WPA arts projects as an obvious example of bad arts policy. But “producing masterpieces” isn’t the best measure for an arts policy designed as unemployment relief in the first place, and arts policy in general doesn’t just support individual artworks but helps artists sustain a career, get training, and experiment. Most serious scholars today argue that the New Deal arts program laid the basis for a national arts scene in the United States that did not previously exist, producing a new sense of professional identity and purpose for American art that paid dividends later on.

Jackson Pollock, Alice Neel, and Charles White all cut their teeth as WPA artists, and went on to great renown in diverse ways. You can’t beat that record.

A magazine cover, cell phone case, and postcard with verisons of Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother photograph are displayed during a media preview of the exhibition "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing" at the Oakland Museum of California on Thursday, May 11, 2017. Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images.

A magazine cover, cell phone case, and postcard with versions of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph are displayed during a media preview of the exhibition “Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing” at the Oakland Museum of California on Thursday, May 11, 2017. Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images.

As for “masterpieces,” I don’t know what else to call a work that has entered as deeply into the symbolic vocabulary as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, which was created for the Farm Services Administration’s photography section.

The NEA, back when it still had individual artist grants (these were a casualty of the Culture Wars fight in the ‘90s), did a pretty good job supporting artists who were in need at stages in their career when it mattered, and who went on to make important art. Michael Brenson looked at artists who won MacArthur “Genius” Grants only after receiving NEA grants first—which was almost all of them given during the relevant time period where the two programs overlapped: Ida Applebroog, Vija Celmins, Ann Hamilton, David Hammons, Gary Hill, Robert Irwin, Alfredo Jaar, Kerry James Marshall, Pepon Osorio, Martin Puryear, Cindy Sherman, James Turrell, Bill Viola, and Fred Wilson.

In many cases, Brenson points out, they received the NEA grant over a decade before they officially became celebrated as “Geniuses,” and the boost helped them stick it out on what was and is a tough path. The fact that Kerry James Marshall, probably the most acclaimed and important living painter today, was allowed to pursue his art full time because of his 1991 NEA grant is part of his official biography.

So you can dispense with the “government funding leads only to mediocrity” line.

On the flip side, however, it may be worth adding that I find no evidence that the alternatives to government funding don’t produce their own biases, particularly in the face of concentrated wealth, the collapse of the middle of the art market, and an increasingly inescapable corporate pop culture. The results of those pressures include the “Zombie Formalism” painting boom of a few years ago—where galleries were swamped with blandly gimmicky abstract paintings, courting herd taste in collectors—or every museum desperately trying to get a hold of a Yayoi Kusama mirror room to bring in the crowds.

The private market produces its own pressures: towards flattering rich people and safe corporate ideas of what’s going to court mass-appeal profitability. The point of arts funding, once more, is to provide a small counterweight against these other pressures towards conformity.

 

Anti-NEA Talking Point #5: The NEA Will Continue to Fund Pornography

Reply: This one dates the Heritage article. The year after it was published, in ’98, the Supreme Court upheld an advisory “decency standard” for NEA grants. In 2010, looking back two decades on from that decision, the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote:

[I]t appears the decency amendment—coupled with the removal of individual artists grants—did not so much become a reason to censor specific work as have a chilling effect on programming at recipient institutions. It also seems that the amendment shifted the NEA’s emphasis from supporting innovative original work to supporting art and art education that would not likely disturb mainstream standards and values.

I’m not aware of anything since that changes the calculation. And yet, the Culture Wars permanently fixed in the public mind the association of the NEA with Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Robert Mapplethorpe’s BDSM photos. It’s part of why it is so easy still to score points bashing the agency on Fox News.

It’s easy to point out that the Heritage report was more concerned with cherrypicking individual instances of controversial art to whip up outrage against government subsidy overall than with accurately assessing what any of the art in question meant. Among the items that Heritage wants to offer—even today, evidently—as irredeemably offensive is the NEA’s support of the organization Women Make Movies. The scandal was that WMM helped distribute films that had lesbian themes.

Similarly, the report cheerfully classed the fact that the NEA’s literature program helped fund “The Gay 100,” a historical digest of famous gays and lesbians, as “pornographic.” The libertarian flacks at Heritage were happy to court homophobia to push their anti-government agenda. That probably seemed a good bet in the late ’90s. It looks plainly like nasty opportunism now.

Reviewing today the report’s appendix purporting to prove the “regular pattern of support for indecency, repeated year after year,” a lot of it fudges the nature of the NEA’s support, and a lot more burlesques the works in question very uncharitably, takes hostile reviews as proof positive of worthlessness, and shows ignorance of the field it claims to authoritatively opine on. It refers to William Pope L. as “William L. Pope.” It includes as government-funded “pornography” the scandal of MoMA showing Bruce Nauman neons that say “Shit and Die” and “Fuck and Die,” because MoMA showed them and received some NEA funding. The horror.

Visitors at the Bruce Nauman works during the 53rd International Art Exhibition on June 5, 2009 in Venice, Italy. Photo by Massimo Di Nonno/Getty Images.

Visitors line up for the Bruce Nauman works during the 53rd International Art Exhibition on June 5, 2009 in Venice, Italy. Photo by Massimo Di Nonno/Getty Images.

In the end, though, getting sucked into defending individual works is a waste. Not everyone is going to be convinced to like Bruce Nauman. I mean, he did actually represent the United States of America at the Venice Biennale, where his acerbic, difficult work won the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion in 2009—something like winning a gold medal in the Olympics of Art—but it is challenging for many viewers.

Debating the merits and demerits of individual works of art, and even whether they were individually worth funding? That’s a job for criticism.

Outside of that, what you have to defend is the principle of the thing.

In 1989, the year of the NEA supernova of controversy, panelists gave out thousands of grants (298 in the soon-to-be-terminated artist-grants category alone!). These included funding such decidedly non-pornographic fare as a documentary about banjo legend Morgan Sexton and a “radio series about women in old-time music” in Kentucky.

"Shady Grove" by Morgan Sexton, a 1991 NEA National Heritage Fellow.

“Shady Grove” by Morgan Sexton, a 1991 NEA National Heritage Fellow.

The NEA could boast, that year, of having funded the initial workshops that became the play Driving Miss Daisy, nominated in movie form for Best Picture in 1990. It gave early support to A Prairie Home Companion in the ‘70s. In the 2010s, Lin-Manuel Miranda workshopped his first musical at the O’Neill Musical Theatre Center, partly funded by the NEA.

Taking a few examples of things that the NEA directly or, more often, indirectly funded that offended conservative sensibilities, and caricaturing government art funding as a whole as being a scheme to corrupt the youth? That’s textbook demagoguery.

 

Anti-NEA Talking Point #6: The NEA Promotes Politically Correct Art

Reply: There are interesting debates on this score. Governmental arts-funding systems are inherently subject to political pressures. That does tend to put pressure on artists to make work that avoids controversy. This is, frankly, a complaint that some artists have about more social democratic arts-funding systems—though they usually wouldn’t give them up, either. The International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies has some very thought-provoking discussion about what mix of “arm’s length” policies best guarantee security and freedom for the arts.

As we have seen, a lot of the NEA’s intensified focus on “community-focused” arts came in the wake of the Culture Wars. So if what you mean by “politically correct” is safe, carefully workshopped, offends-no-one expression, you might be able to make a case that the agency does somewhat tend towards this kind of work. But it is precisely the right’s relentless efforts to demonize the NEA that have led to such “political correctness.”

But that is not what Heritage meant by “politically correct” art. It meant that the “radical virus of multiculturalism” has “permanently infected the agency, causing artistic efforts to be evaluated by race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation instead of artistic merit.”

Yet the one big piece of evidence Heritage mustered was an article by one-time Los Angeles Times theater critic Jan Breslauer in the Washington Post decrying how “race-based politics” had entered arts funding. It’s worth, then, reading the volley of letters that the Post received rebutting Breslauer. Calling it “a crazy quilt of misinformation,” Olive Mosier from the NEA wrote: “[Breslauer’s] suggestion that artists of color have been presented more for their race or ethnicity than for their artistic excellence is demeaning and untrue. The isolated examples of those who contort themselves to qualify for a grant are the exception, and certainly not part of any rule here at the National Endowment for the Arts.”

What is true is that, as already mentioned, arts funding has been a small way to offer support for underserved communities: poor communities, minority communities, rural communities, disabled communities, veteran communities. Guaranteeing access to the arts for a wide spectrum of the citizenry is part of what the NEA was designed to do: “The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States,” is the first line of its founding act. But saying that it takes those factors into consideration is rather different than saying that it is placing “political correctness” over “artistic merit.”

The idea that there is some easily accessed universal standard of “merit” to judge art by is false. Cultural background matters a lot in terms of what is considered good. The factors that make a great fiddle player and a great violinist are a little different. The NEA funds both.

Here is what Michael Kahn, the legendary artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater, wrote the Post in response to the Breslauer essay that Heritage touts:

Such policies do not result in ‘pigeonholing artists and pressuring them to produce work that satisfies a politically correct agenda,’ as Breslauer maintains. Rather, such policies provide in a small measure the means through which these artists may flourish and grow. By encouraging this dialogue, the NEA has created artistic possibilities in an environment that had previously not been hospitable.

Just so.

 

Anti-NEA Talking Point #7: The NEA Wastes Resources

Reply: Heritage writes that, “[l]ike any federal bureaucracy, the NEA wastes tax dollars on administrative overhead and bureaucracy.” This is stated as a universal law.

But there is no universal law that makes this “private = good, public = bad” calculation axiomatically true. In health care, for instance, government programs like Canada’s spend far, far, far less on administration than we do in the United States, where our welter of private insurance companies compete to spend on advertising, marketing, administration, executive salaries, and shareholder profits. Just 17 percent of Canada’s health expenditures go to administration; 34 percent of US health expenditures go to such things.

When it comes to the arts—and arts advocates should know the following fact, so that they can discuss it honestly—we are always talking about a battle over how the government gives away money to support the arts, not whether it does.

Our government gives away astronomically more money in tax breaks than it does in direct grants of money to the arts. The tax break for charitable giving is the single largest way that the US government gives to the arts—orders of magnitude more important than the NEA.

If your objection to arts funding is that it’s wasteful to spend tax money on arts, the NEA is just an incredibly small, random fight to pick, while the tax-break model means that, essentially, government is subsidizing the social calendar of the wealthy, who get to write off their gala tickets and charity-auction purchases.

This model, of course, seems like a good deal from some angles: It incentivizes rich people to give to causes by allowing them to get the social and PR boost for doing so, while at the same time making sure the government isn’t on the hook for the whole bill, since donors can only write off part of their contribution. (Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act tipped the benefits of charitable giving even more towards the top.)

In an age when, for decades all over the world, the balance of power has shifted away from the state and towards the wealthy and corporations, this has appeared to be a good deal. We may admire governments like Germany for their strong public arts support, but Europeans have been talking of the need to move towards “US-style” arts funding for some time.

There is, however, a dark side to this system. Or multiple dark sides.

For one, it skews the priorities of institutions towards short-term thinking. It has led US arts institutions to overbuild, for instance, as it is very hard to get private patrons to fund boring things like operations and maintenance, because what donors want are flashy new buildings and other highly visible initiatives to put their name on, which lead to the most prestige. Just to keep up in the race to court donors, an arts system so heavily dependent on private giving is stuck in permanent expansion mode.

For two, cultivating patronage is not without its own wasteful administration costs. Rich people don’t just give—they need to be romanced. In the ’90s, for every new dollar of private giving raised, institutions incurred 25 cents more of fundraising costs.

Grant writing, of course, has its costs too: an often-cited figure puts it at about 20 cents for every dollar raised. The preferred special event/benefit model, on the other hand, is thoroughly the most wasteful way to raise money for nonprofits, with an average of 50 cents spent for every dollar raised (and plenty of events that yield very little after the lavish amenities to lure the patron class are paid for, while sucking up vast amounts of staff resources.)

The most cost-effective way to get money is “major gifts”—but, to repeat something that has been a theme here—it is the glamorous, established, most-connected major institutions that are best positioned to attract major gifts. Government arts funding is certainly not “wasteful” if it is viewed as helping to correct for this imbalance.

Protestors at the Guggenheim Museum stage a "die-in" to protest Sackler funding. Photo: Caroline Goldstein.

Protestors at the Guggenheim Museum stage a “die-in” to protest Sackler funding. Photo: Caroline Goldstein.

Finally, it’s worth noting that an arts system that tips things so far towards private tax breaks has made US institutions ever more dependent on currying favor with the rich—which has now left them in a terrible bind, and the target of agitation, as exposure of corporate misdoings throws a harsher and harsher light upon the patron class. Just as dependence on government makes institutions vulnerable to anti-government movements, dependence on the mega-rich makes institutions vulnerable to popular protest—and our country has grown so skewed by its extreme levels of inequality that it is cracking apart.

 

Anti-NEA Talking Point #8: The NEA Is Beyond Reform

Reply: The only reason to believe this is if you dogmatically believe that, by its nature, the NEA is bad.

It has reinvented itself over the years in many ways, partnered with new organizations, and created new categories of funding. In the recent past, these have included its Our Town grants (established 2010) for “creative placemaking,” which is essentially arts funding targeted at local economic development, and the Blue Stars Museums program (also established 2010), which makes museums free to active duty military and their families.

Outside a pop-up gallery in Mount Ranier, Maryland, an event in the Art Lives Here series, a recipient of an NEA Our Town grant. Photo courtesy of Art Lives Here.

Outside a pop-up gallery in Mount Ranier, Maryland, an event in the Art Lives Here series, a recipient of an NEA Our Town grant. Photo courtesy of Art Lives Here.

There are debates about what the best forms government arts funding might take, definitely. You can argue over how it divides up its funds between larger and smaller institutions. You can lament the loss of the individual artist grants. You can suspect that the “creative placemaking” doctrine amounts to substituting a weak arts policy for a strong regional economic development policy.

But, to me, the fact that foes of the NEA tend to be more interested in debating whether it should exist rather than debating what it should do seems to suggest that opposition to it is actually about something else entirely… I wonder what that could be?

 

Anti-NEA Talking Point #9: Abolishing the NEA Will Prove to the American Public That Congress Is Willing to Eliminate Wasteful Spending

Reply: This is that “something else.”

The will to cut the NEA has very little to do with the tiny NEA itself. It is symbolic. It has everything to do with government arts funding as a symbol of the government doing things—something opposed ideologically by Heritage, not because what the NEA does itself actually is provably bad or particularly unpopular, but because conservative think tanks simply define government spending as wasteful, a priori, and art funding seems an easy symbol of this waste.

 

Anti-NEA Talking Point #10: Funding the NEA Disturbs the U.S. Tradition of Limited Government

Reply: Here’s the last thing I will say: The NEA is not even my preferred arts policy.

My preferred “arts policy” actually looks just like good social policy. It looks like robustly funding public education, including arts programs for all students—subjects that have been cut in general, even as affluent parents keep them for their own kids. This kind of public funding cultivates a future audience for arts, proves the social benefit of the arts, and, of course, provides jobs for artists that employ their talents.

It would look like a housing program and an end to turning cities into luxury playgrounds for concentrated wealth. Having a cheap place to work and an affordable place to live are what make art scenes thrive.

It would look like a robust social safety net, to provide the kinds of defenses against extreme precariousness that make it easier to sustain a creative practice if you don’t happen to be born into a fortune.

In comparison to all these things, the NEA is an example of limited government intervention. But I’m in favor of it, I’m in favor of expanding it, and I’m in favor of defending it as a symbol of a much broader principle: not giving in to the austerity-for-the-many, worship-of-unchecked-capitalism mindset that institutions like Heritage continue to push, year after year.


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