Arts & Culture » On Culture

What’s really important about the NEA

If Trump eliminates it, the money the organization provides won’t be the most important loss.

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Claudio Roncoli, a recipient of an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, works in his studio space at the Bakehouse Art Complex in Miami, Florida. President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. - JOE RAEDLE
  • Joe Raedle
  • Claudio Roncoli, a recipient of an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, works in his studio space at the Bakehouse Art Complex in Miami, Florida. President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

As you've no doubt heard, Donald Trump wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.

It's a move that'll play well to his supposed base—those red-state good old boys who detest every flaky, degenerate, elitist, and east-coasty thing they think the NEA, and the arts it supports, stands for. (Trump himself is totally east-coasty, but never mind that.)

This may or may not be what Trump thinks too. The only art we know he really likes is huge portraits of himself, like the six-footer his foundation paid $20,000 for at a charity auction.

But it's not a distaste for art that's driving him. And it's not the money that axing the NEA would save. Its current annual budget of just shy of $150 million is chump change to Trump—less than taxpayers will likely spend on his weekend trips to Mar-A-Lago—for a program that supports projects in nearly every congressional district in the country. It's a mere speck in the spending landscape: about .004 percent of the total federal budget, to nurture an arts and culture industry that generates a $26 billion annual U.S. trade surplus.

Ironically, Trump is cutting the arts because it's great theater. It's such an easy target: low-hanging fruit that's also high visibility. The artists know how to put up a fuss that'll get noticed, and he'll look like a hero to that supposed rust-and-Bible-belt antiart constituency. A statement will have been made about what America does and doesn't value.

If it doesn't actually happen—if the NEA survives—it won't matter. Trump's base will have already seen the show.

The demise of the NEA is unlikely because, as the old saw has it, all politics is local. Politicians, even Republicans, have to answer to the voters in their districts, and local artists will rally those folks—the people who, after all, like to come out for the music festival and bring their kid to the art class. They'll be dialing up the congressional offices and signing petitions.

Of course Trump wasn't likely to win the presidency either. So let's consider the slim possibility that, along with gutting the EPA and NIH, and cutting Meals on Wheels—turning a blind eye to global warming and disease and letting grandpa starve—he might actually kill the federal government's already frugal support for the arts.

Would that be devastating to the arts in America? Or would it mostly be damaging to America, a blow to the conception of this "great again" country as a civilized nation?

I think the latter, because despite all the fuss, the federal contribution to arts organizations is, on average, too small a part of their funding for its withdrawal to deal a death blow (except, perhaps, for some programs in rural areas where private donors tend to be scarce). According to a 2012 study it came in at just 1.2 percent.

No organization wants to lose that funding. Chicago groups I've talked with said they'd have to scramble and perhaps make compromises to counteract the loss. But none of them said they'd be shutting down, and it's not the actual dollars that they'd miss most.

The bigger loss would be the recognition and financial leverage that come with an NEA grant—highly coveted because it functions as an endorsement, inspiring support from others. The NEA says every dollar it gives out generates up to nine dollars from other sources.

So here's a question: If we had to, could we retain that function without the NEA? Could we create a nongovernmental national body that—during the NEA's eclipse, which wouldn't need to be longer than the blip of this presidency—would honor worthy arts organizations, not necessarily with money, but by providing the endorsements that would guide donors? Could the art world, its apron strings cut, then give the blowhard that sacked the NEA the finger? And be spared sucking up to his administration?

Meanwhile, more serious damage could come from something else Trump is working on: tax reform. Lawrence Rothfield, cofounder of the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center, says "the thing to really worry about is if they go after the charitable deduction. The way we fund the arts in this country is mainly indirectly. And all the signaling in the world won't matter if there's not a tax incentive to encourage people to give to the arts. That's what really keeps the nonprofit sector afloat."

Trump has proposed two tax changes that would impact donors, especially large donors: he wants to lower the income tax rate for the wealthy and, at the same time, put a cap on itemized deductions. Each of these changes would reduce the incentive to redirect Trump's kind of private wealth to the arts.  v

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