This last week, I counted nearly 50 public radio stations with on-air campaigns seeking to prevent cuts in the National Endowment for the Arts. In Santa Monica, California, our NPR station KCRW is running a radio spot encouraging people to join the movement to tell the Trump administration to stop cuts in funding for local public radio stations. Petitions have sprung up on Change.org and Pen America. Celebrity artists and activists such as Salman Rushdie, Jasper Johns, and Rosanne Cash have joined the movement and added their names to the Pen America petition. In addition, sites like Protect My Public Media have become increasingly active in their efforts.
On a national level, three major art organizations in Chicago, New York and San Francisco are reporting an increase in unsolicited pledges. Last month, the Whitney Museum in Manhattan opened a well received biennial exhibition that is both visually appealing and intentionally politically charged to reflect today's debate.
As reported in the New York Times, in what may be the strongest show of support, high profile celebrities and cultural community leaders like Robert Redford from the Sundance Institute and Peter Gelb from the Metropolitan Opera have spoken out publicly to their constituencies to bring awareness to proposed cuts.
Why is this so important? To put things in perspective, just a year ago, arts organizations were experiencing the smallest increase in funding in over a decade. High profile D.C. based magazine, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, speculated that perhaps the era of large private funding of the arts and culture was on the wane and that monies were being directed to more pressing issues such as climate change and global health.
Is this new activism and sense of purpose actually spurring a renewed energy in arts funding? It appears that the threat of big cuts is mobilizing the spirit of many funders to take decisive action. For those that are old enough to remember, this is déjà vu. In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich also embarked on a campaign to cut funding for all public arts in reaction to the so called "culture wars." Fortunately, after outcries from some of his influential friends, Reagan ultimately did partially reverse his decision against arts funding. At the time, there were several controversial projects that had been granted public funds, such as photographer Andres Serrano’s "Piss Christ" in 1987, Robert Mapplethorpe’s retrospective exhibition "The Perfect Moment" in 1988, and British painter Chris Ofili’s collage "The Holy Virgin Mary," in 1996.
These projects became linked with everything that seemed wrong with public arts funding and this argument has continued to be used today alongside claims that public funds show favoritism to projects with exclusively left wing agendas. Artists, by their very nature, are supposed to push boundaries, but conservatives have long taken the position that federal arts funding underwrites many projects they view as frivolous.
What really has supporters of the arts highly frustrated is the reality of arts funding by the federal government, which is only a fraction of the actual budget, and often gets blown out of proportion. A recent editorial in the New York Times indicated that the two endowment agencies each receive about $148 million a year at present. The budget for public broadcasting, currently $445 million, has been more consistent over the years. Together they still account for only $741 million, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the United States’ annual federal spending, an amount supporters say is too small to really make a difference.
Many don't realize that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is a relatively young institution, having been created by an Act of Congress in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. And few remember the days when arts funding had bipartisan support. Richard Nixon, for example, not only supported the National Endowment, but oversaw a seven-fold increase in NEA funding. The NEA budget also continued to grow through the Ford and Carter administrations.
In response to today's challenge to the arts, PEN America has decided to open its first ever lobbying office in Washington, D.C. and there are discussions of a march on Washington this summer if the budget cuts gain traction in the U.S. Congress. It is unfortunate that it takes a crisis to galvanize the art world in order to support such an important social, cultural, and educational part of our society. However, perhaps this tone of impending doom and the strong possibility that major institutions will be on the chopping block is just the injection of fear and concern we need to motivate action. After all, it has always been a common theme that art thrives under oppression.
Ironically, while all of this controversy is brewing in the U.S., an entirely different scenario is occurring overseas in countries where state funding of the arts and media have never been up for debate. In the UK, the BBC increased its funding to 3.7 billion pounds in annual television licensing fees. Countries such as China, Russia and Qatar have also recently expanded their state-backed media outlets, China Central Television, RT, and Al Jazeera in a bid to extend their influence.
I can personally say that I have redoubled my efforts in order to support projects that are important to the cultural and social activism that is so tied to today's artistic movement. I am determined to continue and explore ways to implement new collaborations into the art activist world in order to find common ground with others. Clearly, complacency is no longer an option and it is time to take decisive and directed action that will impact our future.