Arts funding has always been under assault, but the Trump Administration, hungry for budget cuts, is now baring its teeth at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in what appears to be the most serious threat to its existence since Reagan's crusade in the 1980s. Staffers on Trump's transition team told The Hill that the NEA and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), would be eliminated completely.
Defunding the NEA would be incredibly irresponsible and downright dumb. Federal agencies and departments are nebulous entities, and their responsibilities, scale, and scope are often opaque. The NEA for instance has funded projects related to affordable housing, job training, making sure children have access to playgrounds, historic preservation, resiliency, improving health care, designing better parks, and promoting social justice—along with its mission of funding museums, fine arts, dance, and theater, of course.
If you care about any of these things, you should also care about the NEA.
There is a shortsighted stereotype that the NEA is "welfare for cultural elitists"—a phrase coined by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing organization that's consulting with Trump's transition team on matters including budgeting. The NEA is anything but that. It's getting caught in the conservative war against the arts and elitism, but what's really at stake is money that's sorely needed to enhance communities that are small and large, urban and rural, rich and poor, coastal and heartland.
"The grants and programs that the NEA administers are powerful examples of how the arts are a vital and valuable part of our everyday lives," Victoria Hutter, assistant director of public affairs at the NEA, told Co.Design by email. "In communities across the nation, NEA-supported projects ensure that the arts are accessible to all Americans, through arts education, healing arts, and arts-based community development—as well as through projects that feature dance, music, visual arts, literature, folk and traditional arts, and more."
The NEA is currently operating under a continuing resolution—a type of short-term budgeting structure—for the 2017 fiscal year, which only lasts through April 2017. Its future remains uncertain, and on the subject of next year all Hutter said was: "We look forward to participating in the usual budget process for the FY18 budget with [the Office of Management and Budget] and the White House."
Eliminating the NEA's funding won't make a dent in the national deficit. The NEA and NEH comprise a mere 0.02% of the budget—but cutting it will deprive communities of a much-needed source of creative lifeblood.
To give you a sense of the NEA's scope, look at the Cooper Hewitt's current exhibition on grassroots, socially driven design called By the People. A fair number of the 60 projects on view are NEA grant awardees. The NEA's Our Town program was launched specifically to impact communities and has funded over $30 million worth of projects, like wayfinding in Berea, Kentucky; public artwork in Charleston, West Virginia; and a masterplan for Flint, Michigan.
Here's a sampling of what the NEA funded in 2016: The design of a warming bassinet for premature infants in developing countries, which is currently under development by a firm in Salem, Massachusetts; a project to reimagine how underutilized parcels in downtown Dallas could become public space; the transformation of a brownfield site in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, into a city park, which is part of a larger economic revitalization plan in the area; a social innovation competition geared toward the Navajo Nation, which is being led by the Denver firm Catapult Design; and the design of a temporary installation in Cleveland that teaches residents about a buried stream that weaves through the city.
And the list continues. If NEA funding dries up, projects like these might as well.
Its impact isn't limited to money, though, as explained by the Philadelphia nonprofit Tiny WPA. The group received an NEA grant last year for its Building Hero initiative, which teaches kids and adults from diverse social and economic backgrounds about design, collaboration, leadership, fabrication, and entrepreneurship.
"We couldn't do what we do every day without the support of the National Endowment for the Arts," Alex Gilliam and Renee Schacht, cofounders of Tiny WPA, told Co.Design. "For Tiny WPA, it's also extremely important to look beyond the monetary support and recognize that the NEA and its talented staff are one of the most powerful conveners in the United States, pulling together people, ideas, deep knowledge, and other resources in a manner that few others can do. They are effectively able to double or triple the impact of their budget in this manner. We are lucky to see the impact this has on the incredibly socioeconomically diverse group of people we work with everyday who deeply want the opportunity to be Building Heroes and make a real difference in their communities. This desire to be a Building Hero, to learn real skills, to be empowered, and make a real difference transcends political affiliation or background—a positive side of our current zeitgeist moment—and it would be a travesty to lose support for this work."
The Design Trust for Public Space, a New York-based urban design advocacy nonprofit, received NEA funding in 2016 for its Under the Elevated project to reimagine spaces beneath elevated railways and freeways. "Arts and design elevate our spirits, build our civic pride, and touch people of all ages, the core of our nation’s soul, from rural townships to metropolitan regions," says Susan Chin, executive director of Design Trust for Public Space. "It’s unthinkable to cut the NEA's funding after a 50-year history of successful programs that have contributed tremendous value to society. These creative pursuits—music, dance, theater, visual arts, design—enhance our children’s education, spur entrepreneurship, and promote innovative development that bring us together in our communities."
Heather Fleming, founder of the socially driven design firm Catapult, appreciates the NEA’s focus on funding for underserved communities. "Without NEA funding, our work on the Navajo Nation likely wouldn't exist," she says. "They were the first funders of a seed of an idea, which has now blossomed into multi-year programs to support entrepreneurs with multiple partners across the Navajo Reservation. NEA is one of the only funders I've come across who appreciates the value of design and creativity in advancing the U.S. economy in places that are otherwise overlooked: rural areas, tribal lands, and so on."
The NEA has already recommended grants for 2017—you can search its database for grant winners here. In the design realm, here's what's on the boards: a decorative arts training program in New York for HIV-positive individuals from low-income communities spearheaded by Alpha Workshops; a design education program in Rhode Island public schools, organized by DownCity Design; a project to preserve Kansas City, Missouri's historic downtown core by developing design guidelines; and an initiative to engage residents of Friendship Court, a public housing project in Charlottesville, Virginia, in its redevelopment.
So why kill an organization whose budget is peanuts in the grander scheme of government spending, and whose benefits are exponentially greater than its $149 million endowment? It's a fairly easy act with instant gratification. And given the low approval rating of the current administration and legions of voters who regret casting Trump ballots, leadership is looking for wins wherever possible. Building a wall—a campaign promise Trump's most rabid supporters salivate over—will take time. Demolishing an organization only takes a pen stroke.
"In the current political age, symbolic victories are often more satisfying than real policy change," wrote Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic in a recent editorial. "Of course, eliminating these items from the federal budget won’t make a dent in the accumulated deficit. But it will appease a vocal constituency, who will see it as a sign of strength and determination."
The cost per American for all this? A paltry $0.46 a year for the NEA and $0.46 for the NEH. Additionally, NEA funding carries gravitas, which often leads to additional funding for grant winners from other sources. The organization estimates that every $1 of direct NEA funding generates $9 of funding from private and other public sources.
So here it is: our plea to lawmakers, Congress, and anyone who supports arts and culture, to make sure the NEA and NEH aren't defunded. A country that doesn't fund the arts is saying culture doesn't matter. It most definitely does. In 2016, the NEA recommended grants in every single congressional district in the country. Call your representative and tell them that the NEA is important. I already have, and hope you do, too.
Update 1/28/2017: This post has been updated to include comments from Heather Fleming and to correct a statistic about the number of NEA grants in the Cooper Hewitt's [i]By America exhibition.[/i]