In the weeks since President Donald Trump proposed eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the position has been roundly criticized as an unprecedented move.
If Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal passes, the National Endowment for the Arts would lose all of its federal budget support — nearly $148 million, the equivalent of 45 cents per American.
“You can’t say that cutting them has anything to do with balancing the federal budget. It’s much more of a statement to say that the arts don’t matter, or that they are not a valuable use of taxpayer dollars,” said Tom DeCaigny, the director of cultural affairs at the San Francisco Arts Commission.
“The amount of money that the federal government allocates to the National Endowment for the Arts is very small, but its symbolism is huge,” said Sylvia Sherman, program director at the San Francisco Community Music Center. “The arts and culture are so much of who we are as people. That’s why the NEA is important. The same way that you have a military, that you have education. The arts are an essential part of our human fabrics, so on a symbolic level, it’s very important that on a federal level, there’s also support for the arts.”
The unprecedented nature of NEA cuts from a Republican president
Over the years, the patterns of funding the arts have been relatively bipartisan when it comes to who is sitting in the White House and who is in control of Congress.
The amount of NEA funding since its inception in 1965 grew each year until 1993.
In those 28 years, there were more Republican presidents — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush — than there were Democratic presidents — Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter.
After President George H.W. Bush became president, NEA fundings reached its highest funding level — nearly $176 million in 1992. During the first Bush presidency, Democrats controlled House and Senate seats in Congress.
NEA funding started decreasing after 1993, when President Bill Clinton took office. The sharpest decline in NEA grants also took place during his presidency from 1995 to 1996, when NEA funding dropped by 38.7 percent. In 2000, during Clinton’s last year as president, NEA grants hit a low of $97.6 million. From 1995 to 1996, the state of the U.S. economy faced significant shutdowns, where government spendings across the board was temporarily reduced.
Republicans took control over the House during Clinton’s presidency as well, after 30 years of Democratic control. However, the seat difference was small. In the 104th Congressional term, the Republicans took the lead by 26 seats. In the 105th, they led by 19 seats, and in the 106th and 107th terms, they led by 12 and nine seats, respectively.
In 2001, after George W. Bush was elected as a Republican president, Congress was also controlled by Republicans. Republicans’ control over Congress spanned 2001 to 2007 through his presidency. Throughout Bush’s presidency, the NEA grants increased every year. From 2001 to 2008, the increase amounted to 27.5 percent.
Midway through Barack Obama’s presidency, when Republicans took control of the House majority, NEA grants saw a slight dip. However, the lowest NEA funding of $138.4 million during Obama’s presidency in 2013 was only 4.4 percent lower compared to the highest NEA funding level of $144.7 million in 2008 during George W. Bush’s administration.
Historical tension between Republicans and Democrats on NEA funding
Even before the Trump administration, conservative think-tanks, such as the The Heritage Foundation, have published numerous reports that have advocated for either the reduction or the entire elimination of the NEA and NEH.
In the past, “they haven’t gotten much mainstream support because most Americans value the arts; the arts in their lives from arts education in schools, to the choirs people are part of, and all of the different ways Americans participate in the arts in their communities,” DeCaigny said.
Republicans and conservatives, in general, value smaller governments, “but the irony is that 0.2 percent of the federal budget is not going to put any impact on reducing the size of the federal government.” DeCaigny said.
The NEA is also one of the few federal agencies that administers over 40 percent of their budgets to the states for discretionary allocations. “The states get to do pretty much what they see is the best way of spending it,” DeCaigny said. “So the NEA is really a model for how we would allow federal funding to be distributed at the state and regional level.”
Former California Arts Council Director Craig Watson mentioned another important historical trend when it comes to arts funding support by past presidents: “There’s been historically incredible bipartisan support for, including a lot of leadership from Republicans on arts and culture, including the funding of the NEA.”
Under Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the late 1980s, “the NEA was giving 20 million more dollars than they are today,” Watson said.
NEA grants are broken down into multiple art categories and are allocated to arts organizations throughout the country. The NEA grant system is largely broken down into three categories: Grants for Organizations/Arts Projects, Grants for Individuals and Partnership Agreements.
The Grants for Arts Projects and Individuals range from supporting active duty service members, veterans and families, to rural communities, communities dealing with socioeconomic challenges and communities of color.
“The NEA is kind of the stamp of approval,” DeCaigny said. “Many organizations benefit just having reached even a small NEA grant because they are able to demonstrate the kind of competitive nature of those grants and show that they are a well-performing organization.”
Bay Area art group directors speak up
For Bay Area arts groups, the specter of losing all NEA funding is catastrophic.
Frameline, a San Francisco-based arts organization dedicated to increasing the accessibility of diverse LGBTQ stories, has received federal funding for half of its 41-year history.
“A country that chooses not to support its arts, denies a place its soul,” said Frances Wallace, Frameline’s executive director. “America’s greatness would be diminished, if it chooses not to support its genius artists — not only its queer film artists, but all artists — and the nonprofits that support them and their process. May the discussion in Congress about the FY 2018 budget truly remember how the arts hold a mirror up to our culture.”
Judith Smith, founder and director of AXIS Dance Company in San Francisco, also talked about the impact that the NEA cuts would have on her organization, noting the group has received about $20,000 a year from the NEA since 1995.
The AXIS Dance Company features ensembles of disabled and non-disabled performers.
“We serve over 20,000 people every year, from kids in elementary schools up to seniors in assisted living. We also work with veterans. But our main focus is on people with disabilities,” Smith said. “It’s pretty pathetic, to take money away from literally thousands of organizations that serve hundreds of thousands of individuals.”
MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, an arts organization based in San Jose, promotes Chicano and Latino art. The organization has also been benefiting from the NEA funds since the early 1990s, said Executive Director Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez.
“For every dollar that the NEA gives out, it’s matched by almost nine dollars in private or other non-federal support,” Helstrup-Alvarez said. “If you think about that, it’s those dollars that are then being spent in the community. And that’s benefiting people, from an economic point of view.”
Directors of the Bay Area’s various arts groups are urging people to email or call their elected officials.
“Let them know that it’s not OK with you, that the arts are going to be defunded in this country,” Smith said.