US Arts Funding fears illustrated in Trump budget plan

The Washington Post reveals that US President Donald Trump’s first budget plan includes the intention to eliminate four longstanding cultural agencies that would ‘radically reshape the nation’s cultural infrastructure’. Confirming fears expressed by arts policy watchers, outlined in the last edition of NiTRO, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) are in the firing line for budget excision. The current federal allocation is: NEA -US$148 million: NEH- US$148 million; CPB US$445 million; and Institute of Museum and Library Services - US$ 230 million. The Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art could also be hit by additional cuts.

The Washington Post points out that although the federal funding for these organisation is comparatively small, it provides for extensive additional funding leverage from the private and philanthropic sector. It reports: ‘Last year, the NEA sent $47 million to 50 states and five jurisdictions, funds that helped to leverage $368 million from state governments. Together, those funds were distributed through 24,000 grants, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA)'

“Those state grants are crucial to arts organizations, including those that help young actors get their first roles and young writers develop their voices” said Edgar Dobie, executive director of Washington’s Arena Stage. “It’s the R&D the field needs,” Dobie said. “It’s so shortsighted to say it’s not as important as a new helicopter.”’

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US arts funding in the Trump era

As the world’s media fascinates with the daily twists and turns of the Trump administration in national security, trade relations and social cohesion, creative artists in the US have been expressing concerns about future funding for the arts.  According to a range of US news sources, the new President's views on the position and funding of the arts remain ‘opaque’ and uncertain.  There are reports that, as part of the drive to reduce the federal bureaucracy, the National Endowment for the Arts should be eliminated and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting privatised.  Previous presidential aspirations to get rid of the national arts and arts research grant funder NEA have been avoided through the intervention of high profile entertainment figures.  Ronald Regan was apparently diverted from reducing NEA funding by a Charlton Heston led taskforce, but to date Trump’s relationship with entertainment celebrities, such as his run in with Meryl Streep, indicates that showbiz intervention may not be as successful this time round. Speaking in Variety, Eric Ortner, a member of the former President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities said ‘We are going to have a big fight on our hands . . . but I don’t think the question is, ‘Should we send Alec Baldwin to the Hill?’ The question is, ‘How do we talk about the work?’ 

Looming in the background is a 2016 report produced by the conservative Heritage Foundation ‘Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017’ which recommends not only the elimination of the NEA but also the National Endowment for the Humanities and declares that ‘Taxpayer assistance of the arts is neither necessary nor prudent’. (The full report is available at: https://thfreports.s3.amazonaws.com/2016/BlueprintforBalance.pdf)

Meanwhile artists are fearful of the impact of proposed legislative changes, such as reform to tax codes which cap tax deductible donations to under US$200,000 per couple.  Given that the arts received 30% of its funding from donations from foundations, private individuals and corporations this could have a major impact on sustainability.   

Taking a more positive view, Mike Blakeslee, the executive director of the National Association for Music Education, sees the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary as an important move for arts education given her connection with the Kennedy Centre and multi-million donations to the arts from her family Foundation.

To add to the confusion and uncertainty, there are even reports that the President’s transition team had considered a major government arts role for Sylvester Stallone! Strange times may be ahead for artists in the US. Americans for the Arts in Washington D.C are holding an Arts Advocacy event on March 21 so perhaps the picture may be made clearer in the next few weeks.

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