De-funding the NEA is Not About Saving Money, It's About Censoring the Arts

Chris Peterson

OnStage Editor-in-Chief

Updated 3/16/17:

What many had feared for a while, finally was confirmed this morning: President Trump is cutting the National Endowment of the Arts. 

According to the Washington Post, his plan will cut funding by the beginning the new fiscal year.  The article can be found here:

For those of you who don't know, the NEA is an independent agency of the United States federal government that offers support and funding for artistic projects.

Of course, news of this has started a wild fire on social media and rightfully so. Because the mission to de-fund this organization, which has been ongoing since the early 1980's, has never been about saving taxpayer dollars but instead to support widespread censorship. 

Let's take a closer look at the realities, rather than myths, when it comes to the NEA and its funds. 

The Money

While I will certainly agree that government spending needs to be reigned in a bit, there is little justification for putting the NEA on the chopping block.

The NEA's annual budget right now stands at $146 Million, of which they gave away over half($82 Million) in grants in 2015. While that's a lot of money to you and I, it's a dime in a bucket compared to what else the government spends tax dollars on. 

The chart on the right shows Federal Government Discretionary spending for 2015. As you can see, the arts isn't up there. In fact, the NEA's budget of $146 Million would make up for only .11% for what this country spends on Food & Agriculture, the lowest amount on the chart. In reality, the NEA's budget makes up for .002%. 

So eliminating this organization would only save you and I incredibly small fractions of 1 cent on the dollar. Which proves that the incoming Trump administration isn't thinking about saving your money when eliminating this program.

Also keep in mind that while the NEA's $140 Million is being revoked, defense spending is getting a $54 Billion increase. 

The Movement to De-fund

The GOP's mission to de-fund the NEA began in 1981 when President Reagan took office. Having pledged his allegiance to a social conservative base that elected him, Reagan initially wanted to de-fund the organization over a three year period. However that plan was abandoned after a task force, which included Charlton Heston, found that funding the arts was important. The Reagan administration ended up cutting the budget by about 6% and then increasing it during his second term. 

However the battle waged on with conservative supporters accusing the NEA of supporting everything from communism to pornography to anti-Religious propaganda. 

In 1989, an exhibit featuring a work titled "Piss Christ", a photo of a plastic crucifix submerged in a vial of an amber fluid described by the artist as his own urine, was set to be displayed in a museum that received NEA funding. Organizations and conservative politicians rallied against this display. This led to the Corcoran Museum to cancel the exhibit and many other museums cancelling exhibits out of fear their funding would come under attack. 

While it's true that some projects funded by grants in are explicit in nature, these are a small percentage and celebrate our freedoms of speech and expression. You may have different tastes in art but those differences shouldn't lead to cutting museum funding and censoring artists and performers. 

The GOP's Argument for Cutting the NEA

One organization that has been leading the charge to eliminate the NEA is the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation. One their website, they posted an article titled, "Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts". 

In it, they list what they feel are the ten best reasons for cutting funding. However, their reasoning is simply short-sighted, based in hypothetical and astoundingly incorrect. 

Their first reason is one of the worst. They state that "The Arts Will Have More Than Enough Support without the NEA".

Their justification for this is saying that the arts were well funded before the NEA came into being in 1965 and will do just as well without government funding due to private donations. 

They do have a point here. According to data, private donations towards the arts rose to about $10 Billion last year. However, what the Heritage Foundation misses is that donations towards the arts wildly fluctuate depending on the organization. For instance, the Kennedy Center will take in over $100 Million in donations but a small town community arts center might only raise $10,000. So generally speaking that the arts community will thrive without NEA grants is tremendously short-sighted. 

Matching grants for organizations from the NEA range from $10,000 to $100,000, a single grant can support an entire fiscal year budget for community theatres, art galleries and music schools. As conductor George Stelluto said, "From Peoria to Cleveland to New York, arts organizations take those relatively small N.E.A. grants and turn them into cultural and economic gold." Many towns across this country, for instance my hometown of East Haddam, CT, benefit financially from a vibrant arts scene. Without NEA support, towns, schools and programs will suffer greatly. 

Ohio Fine Arts Association

Ohio Fine Arts Association

For example, a $10,000 NEA grant made a huge difference to Willoughby, Ohio’s Fine Arts Association. The grant supported a Music Enrichment Program for middle and secondary school students in the Painesville School District. The NEA-funded program is specifically tailored to provide weekly one-on-one music instruction, instruments, teachers, books, and transportation to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds within the district’s four counties. Most the participants are Latino or black with a large migrant worker population. These children face significant impediments to achieving in life much less music, but this program gives them a chance to succeed at both.

If not for the NEA grant, this Music Enrichment Program would have been terminated.

The Heritage Foundation also argues that NEA funding is simply "welfare for Cultural Elitists". But they ignore the fact that the NEA has a rigorous approval process to even receive a grant. They also say that the NEA "Discourages Charitable Gifts to the Arts" which isn't true because, as the Heritage Foundation pointed out, private donations are on the rise. 

Cutting these programs will also result in a profound loss in jobs. Census data pointed out that 4.3% of the nations workforce works in arts related industries. Cutting potentially $90 Million in grants could put many jobs in jeopardy and for a President who has said he's going to be the "Jobs President", this would be a gigantic step backwards. 

The truth of the matter is this, the conservative base in this country doesn't like government money funding creative art that they deem as offensive. That's it. That's what this near 40 year battle has been over. 

Thankfully no President has given this argument much value nor relied on the support of those who spew it....until now.