Arts advocates have particular reason to be outraged. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities are among 19 bodies slated to be defunded entirely under Trump’s proposal, along with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
When reports initially surfaced in January that the NEA and NEH might be targeted for elimination, arts advocates pushed back, noting that the two agencies combined only account for a fraction of 1 percent of the budget while providing irreplaceable support for local arts, culture and education programs around the country.
In fiscal year 2015, NEA grants reached every county in the country, many through partnerships. State and local arts organizations partially depend on federal funding to sustain accessible arts programs throughout the country ― not just in major metropolitan areas. The NEA targets roughly half of its grants to programs that will reach underserved communities through arts and literacy education, local theater and performance, and radio and TV broadcasts of arts programming.
Meanwhile, the NEH worked directly and with local agencies to support the preservation of American history and culture, funding projects such as the digitization of the Hellen Keller Archives and the preservation of aging wax cylinder recordings of Native American languages and song.
Weeks prior to the release of Trump’s budget proposal, arts advocacy groups scrambled to defend the institutions’ value, not only culturally but economically, as the funding also stimulates the arts marketplace.
The NEH supports “humanities work in small towns all around the country,” Stephen Kidd, the executive director of the National Humanities Alliance, told HuffPost in January. Whether the organization is providing crucial funding to local historical societies preserving pockets of American history, ensuring students have access to decades of newspaper articles for research, or helping veterans cope with war trauma through literature, Kidd said, “there really aren’t other funders out there that are supporting that kind of work on that kind of scale.”
PEN America director Suzanne Nossel agreed, telling HuffPost that the agencies “fund things that can’t attract for-profit dollars,” ensuring that culturally significant arts organizations aren’t utterly dependent on attracting philanthropic contributions from wealthy donors.
Both the NEA and NEH had remained publicly optimistic and refrained from what the agencies termed “speculation” on federal appropriations for 2018.
However, upon the release of the president’s budget proposal, NEA chairman Jane Chu noted in a statement that “[a]s a federal government agency, the NEA cannot engage in advocacy, either directly or indirectly.” Nonetheless, she commented that the institution is “disappointed ... we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every Congressional District in the nation.”
In a separate statement, NEH chairman William D. Adams commented, “We are greatly saddened to learn of this proposal for elimination ... But as an agency of the executive branch, we answer to the President and the Office of Management and Budget.”
Though the endowments themselves cannot advocate, advocacy groups are amping up their mobilization.
“The elimination of the NEA and the NEH under the proposed federal budget would be a betrayal of the U.S. government’s long history of bipartisan support for innovation in the arts and for groundbreaking research, and could threaten the future of some of the most treasured national institutions,” PEN America’s Nossel stated Thursday in a press release urging continued action.
Approval of a federal budget ultimately falls to Congress, not the president. Though both houses are currently held by the president’s own party, many Republicans in the House and Senate have already voiced discomfort with elements of his proposed budget. And while the NEH and NEA have previously been targeted for elimination by right-wing politicians, they have always enjoyed enough bipartisan support to escape the axe.
Advocates now hope that the same will hold true in congressional battles over the final fiscal year 2018 budget. It takes effect Oct. 1.