The phrase “government support for the arts” is often understood to mean, “funding for the arts,” and by extension, at least for some, “funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.” This last made headlines last week when reports surfaced about the new administration’s intention to eliminate the NEA, NEA, and CPB. But “support for the arts” is more than just funding. The most important support for the arts is a free and open society. More than funding the NEA, it is threats to our free and open society about which I am most concerned. Those threats seem most insidious when they are indirect, like the travel ban enacted by executive order over the weekend. What does that ban have to do with the arts? Creativity and innovation are fueled by the open interchange of ideas. Perhaps that — more than any potential and highly unlikely terrorist threat — is what the new administration is really afraid of.
Regarding the other kind of support, the direct financial kind, I encourage people to work with their local and national arts advocacy organizations but also to take direct individual action. Our congressional representatives make it easy to contact them online if you live in their district – they put up barriers to messages from Americans at large, but you can get around them. Last week, before the more immediate news of the travel ban hit, I wrote as a private citizen to the entire congressional delegation of my mostly red state, admittingly generalizing for that audience more than I would in an academic setting. Here’s what I wrote:
The cultural industries represent about 5% of US GDP. That’s a pretty good return on investment considering the federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities combined represent just 1 1 hundredth of 1 percent (NOT 1 percent, 0.01 percent) of the federal budget. It was surprising, therefore, to read that the presidential transition team intends as one of its very first acts to de-authorize both the NEA and NEH as a budget cutting measure, along with a list of other small dollar programs. I commend the intention to trim the federal budget, but cutting the NEA and NEH are funded at such a low level that their defunding won’t have an effect on the budget beyond a rounding error. Yet, defunding these agencies will cause thousands of Americans to lose their jobs and thousands upon thousands of schoolchildren and elderly to lose access to arts programming in schools and community centers. Almost half of the NEA budget goes to states as block grants; this is a good way to enact Republican principles like local control. It is ironic that the new president, while vowing to save American jobs would do something that eliminates them, while vowing to make America great again will do something that will diminish its cultural capital, and that a president that has vowed to return power to states would cut a program that does just that. I urge you to reject any efforts to defund or de-authorize the NEA and NEH.