Cutting Federal Arts Support Is Sheer Folly

By Alex Barker

“In the long history of man, countless empires and nations have come and gone. Those which created no lasting works of art are reduced today to short footnotes in history’s catalog,” said President Lyndon Johnson, as he signed the bill creating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a Nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Now it is the endowments themselves that may perish, and with them a shared vision for America. The Trump administration has proposed eliminating both endowments, along with other federal support for arts, culture, history and language.

That would be a tragic loss, and for no appreciable gain. The total annual budget for the Office of Museum Services—which provides grant competitions and guidance for all of the nation’s museums—is one-third of what a single major university spends on athletics each year. The total of both endowments represents less than three one-hundredths of one percent of the total federal discretionary budget. Every dollar spent by the NEA leverages an additional nine dollars of private philanthropy, and because nearly half of NEA’s budget is channeled through state art agencies those funds touch every corner of the country—every Congressional district, every part of our nation, and not just the two coasts.

Like Johnson, I believe the arts matter because they are the surest expression of who we are as a nation. But eliminating arts support is a bad idea even in solely economic terms. Few public investments generate a nine-fold return in private monies, and the arts are a powerful economic engine. Nationally the arts have a $729 billion impact, and generate 4.13 million jobs, as well as $22.3 billion in local, state and federal tax receipts.

Cutting arts, language, history and culture because “we can’t afford them” would be a bad idea in any situation. Such cuts make us poorer as a people. But when, as here, they also have a negative economic impact they’re sheer folly. The arts and culture sector represents 4.2 percent of GDP, and provides a $26 billion dollar trade surplus for the US. Now check your retirement account. Do you have, or even know about, any investment that returns so handsomely—much less one that simultaneously enriches our lives and expresses our vision and values as a people?

Another president, John Adams, explained his support for the Revolution very simply. He made war so his sons could focus on mathematics and philosophy, which would in turn “allow their children the right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” A quarter of a millennium later, those rights are as valuable, and as necessary to our inner vision, as ever. We must not let them perish.

Alex Barker is director of the Museum of Art and Archaeology in Columbia, Missouri, and president-elect of the American Anthropological Association.