The “America First Budget” proposes to eliminate programs like the National Endowments for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, justifies these cuts by explaining that this kind of programming “really isn’t helping anybody.”
You are wrong, Mr. Mulvaney.
Let me list the ways in which this kind of programming has helped me:
As a gay kid in the 1960s who was bullied and did not fit in, I found my hero in none other than Kermit the Frog. Kermit was part of my life because of PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. When I felt lonely and different, Kermit sang this on Sesame Street:
It’s not easy being green.… / But green’s the color of Spring / And green can be cool and friendly-like / And green can be big like the ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree / When green is all there is to be / It could make you wonder why, but why wonder? / Why Wonder, I am green and it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful! / And I think it’s what I want to be.
That song helped build my self-esteem. Without its message, perhaps I would not have the strength I have today to be authentically myself, to be proud and productive. I continue to be inspired by this message; to this day, I have a framed version of the lyrics of this song hanging in my office as a reminder that self-acceptance and self-love are keys to success.
Oh, and did I mention that Sesame Street also taught me my ABCs? I was 4 years old when Sesame Street first aired. I was one of its first target audience members. That show taught me to read. As a result, I excelled at school from an early age. Sesame Street provided me with a strong foundation on which to build my education.
This America First Budget devalues the arts and after-school programming. For me, it was the after-school drama club that helped me survive high school. The drama club provided me with a safe space, a home, friends, a family. This is where my differences were celebrated, where my creativity flourished. Mr. Mulvaney might believe that singing and dancing in the chorus of Damn Yankees does not help anyone, but I am living proof that doing just that saved me.
It is no coincidence that there are many gay people in the arts. As kids, we gravitate to places like drama clubs and ballet classes because these are prejudice-free zones. Here we are loved, we are valued, and we are embraced.
Today, I am a theater professor and stage director. What saves me now is going into rehearsal, collaborating with other artists. Connecting. I do not find truth in Sean Spicer’s spinning or Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts. I find truth in a Lynn Nottage play. Spending hours delving into plays like Nottage’s Ruined or By the Way, Meet Vera Stark allows me to understand the world more fully than anything else could.
The arts provide truth. The arts provide guides through complex issues.
Mr. Mulvaney states that he cannot justify these programs “to the folks who are paying the taxes.” He says, “I can’t go to the auto worker in Ohio and say: Please give me some of your money so that I can do this program over here someplace else that really isn’t helping anybody.” He says he cannot justify the programs to a coal miner in West Virginia or to a single mom in Detroit either.
Has anyone asked these auto workers/coal miners/moms if the arts are part of their lives? It is insulting to assume that these folks do not need theater or music or dance. The auto worker may find joy in acting in a community theater play. The coal miner may find solace in attending the ballet. The mom may be thankful that her child has found a safe space after school in the drama club.
I have not even mentioned that the arts (and the programs Mr. Mulvaney wants to cut) provide jobs to many people in this country. How can Mr. Mulvaney justify cutting American jobs in the arts as part of the America First Budget?
Mr. Mulvaney says that “these programs that we’ve targeted … can’t justify their existence.” Really? These programs provide purpose, insight, community, unity, family. They provide the reason for some Americans to get up in the morning and make it through another day.
So, please, Mr. Mulvaney, do not tell us that arts’ programming is expendable and indefensible. If we are to truly put America First, then the arts must not come last.