Trump Reportedly Wants to Eliminate the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities

Republicans and the NEA have a long history of conflict.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a news conference at Trump Tower on January 11, 2017 in New York City. Photo Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

One day ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, the Hill reports that he is seriously considering eliminating both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of a “dramatic” plan to slash government spending.

The report is vague on the exact origin of the information about the incoming administration’s plans, but refers to a budget “blueprint” shared between career staff at the White House and the Trump transition team.

“Overall, the blueprint being used by Trump’s team would reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years,” writes The Hill‘s Alexander Bolton. The 2016 federal budget expenditures totaled an estimated $3.9 trillion.

In addition to eliminating government funding for the arts—already paltry by world standards—the plan would involve privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as well as major funding and programming cuts for the departments of Energy, Commerce, Transportation, Justice, and State, according to The Hill.

The budget for the NEA has ranged, over the last two decades, from a low of $97.6 million, in 2000, to a high of $167.5 million, in 2010. The NEA’s appropriation last year was $148 million.

As Americans for the Arts pointed out a few years ago, however, budgetary appropriations for the agency have failed to keep up with inflation, and are already significantly withered in real terms: “If the NEA’s 1992 budget remained constant and was only adjusted for inflation, it would be $289 million in 2013, instead of $146 million.”

Congress ultimately controls the purse strings of the federal government, with any presidential budget due for an arduous process, which includes giving the heads of affected agencies the chance to comment and appeal for changes. “Trump’s Cabinet picks have yet to be apprised of the reforms, which would reduce resources within their agencies,” The Hill reports.

However, there is reason to think that a Republican-controlled Congress would welcome such a budgetary plan.

Bolton points out that the rumored budget blueprint conforms closely to proposals published last year by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has long advocated eliminating the NEA. (It also advocates for repealing the Affordable Care Act and recently came out against President Obama’s commutation of the sentence of Chelsea Manning.)

The proposed cuts are also seemingly informed by a budget adopted by the conservative Republican Study Committee, representing a majority of House Republicans, Bolton writes. Former Heritage Foundation staffers Russ Vought and John Gray, both also staffers for Vice President–elect Mike Pence, are reportedly in charge.

The NEA has been a favorite target for Republicans in Washington ever since the Culture Wars of the late 1980s and 1990s, when public support for exhibitions of provocative artists like Robert Mapplethorpe caused an uproar. Senator Jesse Helms said of artist Andres Serrano, whose photograph Piss Christ showed a crucifix submerged in urine, “He is not an artist, he is a jerk.” An exhibition including his work had received public support.

Writer Amanda Kolson Hurley, on Twitter, points out an ironic twist in the organizations’ recent history:

When reached for comment by email, the NEA told artnet News, “We’re not speculating on what policies the President-elect (or the Congress) may or may not choose to pursue.”

NEH spokeswoman Theola DeBose, in a statement to artnet News, similarly said, “We are not going to speculate on the policies or priorities of the new Administration.”

Representatives of the transition team did not immediately return a request for comment.

UPDATE: PEN America executive director Suzanne Nossel has released a statement, saying that the proposed cuts would “usher in a new Dark Ages in America.” The complete text is below:

The Trump administration’s plans, reported in The Hill this morning, to abolish wholesale the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts are an outrageous abdication of the US government’s proud history of support for groundbreaking research and creative endeavors that have served as engines of innovation and bolstered America’s stature as a haven for free thinkers and a global leader in humanity’s shared quest for knowledge.

The National Endowment for the Humanities, founded in 1965, is a leading source of funding for humanities programs in the United States. Its grants support cultural institutions including museums, libraries, and public television, as well as universities and individual scholarship. It has supported over 7,000 book projects, including 16 Pulitzer Prize winners, and the United States Newspaper Project, cataloguing over 60 million pages of historic newspapers for future use by scholars.

The National Endowment for the Arts, also established in 1965, supports participation and scholarship in the arts, works to ensure equal access to arts and culture for all Americans, and partners with state and local leaders to support creative initiatives at the community level. Its funding supports literature, visual arts, dance, theater, museums, and arts education programs around the country.

The announcement that this is even under consideration casts a sinister cloud over our vibrant national culture, stoking fears that the Trump Administration aims to usher in a new Dark Ages in America. US leadership and innovation in arts, culture, and the humanities are wellsprings of American greatness and the envy of the world. This proposal sends shivers down the spine of all Americans who value research, scholarship, and creativity and who recognize the mortal blow that eliminating these vital agencies would strike at the heart of treasured sectors of our society.  Even apart from the essential resources at stake, the signal sent by this gesture is a slap in the face to artists, writers, researchers, and scholars who are learning that the Administration seems to consider their work worthless.

UPDATE: On January 21, a petition appeared on the White House’s website, calling on the President to preserve the NEA and the NEH.

UPDATE: On January 23, the College Art Association published the following statement:

For more than a century, the College Art Association (CAA) has represented art historians, artists, museum professionals, designers, and others who think and care about the visual arts and its impact on our culture. We do this in part through direct advocacy for artistic and academic freedom.

Like many other Americans, we have closely watched the proposed changes to the federal government. Recent news reports reveal that the US President intends to propose the elimination of funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). This proposal is reportedly based in part on a recommendation by the Heritage Foundation that states, “As the US Congress struggles to balance the federal budget and end the decades-long spiral of deficit spending, few programs seem more worthy of outright elimination than the National Endowment for the Arts.”

We offer our complete and total opposition to these efforts.

Since the 1960s, the NEA and NEH have supported artists, writers, museum professionals, and a wide array of scholars of various disciplines in creating new work and scholarship. The NEA supports thousands of cultural and educational organizations, and, in a few cases, individual artists. The NEH, which strengthens teaching and learning in schools and colleges—as well as the work of independent scholars—creates access to educational scholarship and research nationwide. In addition, the NEH is a strong supporter of museum exhibitions throughout the country. Combined, the budgets for the two agencies are less than $300 million. The organizational grantees generate hundreds of millions of dollars in matching support and countless new works of art and scholarship. These works and related projects are studied and enjoyed by millions of Americans in museums and other venues. The cultural sector of the US economy generates more the $135 billion in revenue and employs over three million people in small towns and large cities countrywide.

Given that the respective budgets of the NEA and NEH represent only a tiny fraction of the entire federal budget, their planned elimination cannot logically be seen as a cost-saving measure. Rather, it appears to be a deliberate, ominous effort to silence artistic and academic voices, representing a potentially chilling next step in an apparent effort to stifle and eradicate oppositional voices and cultural output from civic life. By eliminating the support for these agencies, the government undermines the unifying potential of the arts, culture, and education that encourages and nurtures communication and positive discussion.

CAA leadership is monitoring the possible elimination and/or reduction of funding for the NEA and NEH and how it may affect our members and the work they do. CAA will communicate and collaborate with other cultural and educational organizations and learned societies to determine potential future advocacy options.

We urge our fellow CAA members to contact their representatives in Congress to let them know the importance of maintaining a robust, national, publicly supported framework for artistic and academic freedom.  When you contact your representative, we ask that you let them know you are a member of CAA and together we are advocating for continued public funding for the arts. We also encourage you to contact the National Humanities Alliance and Americans for the Arts to become further involved.

Through our collective strength, we can ensure that public funding of scholarship and art making continues, free from political and commercial interference.

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