In an impassioned (but not quite scorched-earth) op-ed for The New York Times, Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas P. Campbell issued a swift and effective defense of public art in the United States.
“Arts and cultural programming challenges, provokes and entertains; it enhances our lives,” he wrote. “Eliminating the NEA would in essence eliminate investment by the American government in the curiosity and intelligence of its citizens.”
His defense ― a paean to the National Endowment of the Arts, in particular ― comes after rumors-turned-reports alleged that President Donald Trump’s administration plans to slash arts funding in an attempt to cut down on domestic spending. “Eliminating arts funding programs will save Donald Trump just 0.0625% of budget,” outlets have claimed. Nonetheless, it appears as though his office is ready to eliminate nine programs, including the NEA.
Campbell anticipates that regions around the country, not just those within walking distance of the Met, will feel the loss of such an institution. NEA grants are awarded to schools, jazz festivals, dance troupes, literary organizations, museum exhibitions, “arts programs for war veterans,” and so much more across every U.S. congressional district, Campbell claims. In fact, you can get an idea of the NEA’s scope of influence here, courtesy of a website created by artist Tega Brain. Grants are small ― they average $26,000, Campbell says, and require groups to secure matching funds ― but they can be powerful.
As the planet becomes at once smaller and more complex, the public needs a vital arts scene, one that will inspire us to understand who we are and how we got here.
“Thousands are distributed in all 50 states, reaching every congressional district, urban and rural, rich and poor,” Campbell added, countering the Heritage Foundation’s characterization of the NEA as “welfare for cultural elitists.” “These grants sustain the arts in areas where people don’t have access to major institutions like the Met.”
Contained within Campbell’s poetic defense is also an admission of concern: “I fear that this current call to abolish the NEA is the beginning of a new assault on artistic activity,” he proclaimed, harkening back to the last time publicly-funded art was under threat. In the 1990s, a congressional “decency test” turned lawmakers into wayward art critics capable of vetoing grants to expecting artists who didn’t meet Congress’ moral standards. Think artists like the NEA Four. Or, in the late 1980s, Robert Mapplethorpe, Dread Scott and Andres Serrano.
Eliminating the NEA would in essence eliminate investment by the American government in the curiosity and intelligence of its citizens. As the planet becomes at once smaller and more complex, the public needs a vital arts scene, one that will inspire us to understand who we are and how we got here — and one that will help us to see other countries, like China, not as enemies in a mercenary trade war but as partners in a complicated world.
Campbell is hardly the only person to bridle at the prospect of decreased national arts funding. Authors, actors and artists, in particular, have been vocal about the need to protect the NEA and similar institutions. PEN America launched a petition to support the NEA; a White House petition with similar aims erupted.
As writer Celeste Pewter noted in a comprehensive Twitter thread, any proposed cuts to the NEA or similar programs would depend on Congressional budgets and appropriation. Similarly, in a thorough examination for The Huffington Post, reporter Claire Fallon outlined six things NEA supporters can do to protect national arts funding before an official decision to defund is made.
In the meantime, it will be important for figures like Campbell to continue to step forward and effectively communicate the impact and reach of the NEA. To tell the stories that accurately reflect how arts funding touches not only the coasts, but heartland organizations. To eloquently explain the ways in which art can transform opinions and illuminate the other.
In the face of a president who seems willing to cut budgetary corners he might not fully understand, it’s worth remembering the words of a former president, Barack Obama, who said, “Equal to the impact [artists] have on each of us every day as individuals is the impact [they] have on us as a society. And we are told we’re divided as a people, and then suddenly the arts have this power to bring us together and speak to our common condition.”