Well, having art and culture sure was cool while it lasted!
President-elect Donald Trump plans to dramatically slash funding for the humanities when he takes office, according to a new report from The Hill. In meetings with White House staff, Trump transition officials have reportedly indicated that the administration will shutter the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The Hill report notes that the floated budget cuts “hew closely to a blueprint published last year by the conservative Heritage Foundation.” It’s previously been reported that the think tank has been enormously influential in shaping Trump’s nascent administration.
In the “Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017,” the Foundation devotes one page each to the eliminations of the NEA and the NEH, which is more than enough to paint a chilling picture for supporters of public arts funding.
In its argument for closing the NEH, the Heritage blueprint proclaims, “government should not use its coercive power of taxation to compel taxpayers to support cultural organizations and activities.” On a similar note, it states of the NEA, “Taxpayer assistance of the arts is neither necessary nor prudent [...] Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for plays, paintings, pageants, and scholarly journals, regardless of the works’ attraction or merit.”
Reached via email, both the NEA and the NEH declined to comment specifically on the report. “We’re not speculating on what policies the president-elect (or the Congress) may or may not choose to pursue,” Victoria Hutter, assistant director of public affairs at the NEA, told HuffPost.
“We are not going to speculate on the policies or priorities of the new Administration,” NEH spokeswoman Theola DeBose reiterated.
The act forming the NEA and the NEH was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, in response to a movement to restore due attention and emphasis to the arts in an age driven by scientific innovation and exploration ― an imbalance that hasn’t gone away, as universities today focus on STEM and slash humanities funding.
Though the Heritage Foundation blueprint argues that the endowments can and should be replaced by philanthropy, the NEA and NEH serve a unique purpose. Relying solely on individual arts giving and spending can leave humanities institutions and creatives at the whims of the super-wealthy ― think Trump’s foundation purchasing a portrait of the man himself for thousands of dollars, or, more typically, a moneyed New Yorker donating millions to her favorite opera house ― but the NEA and NEH take on initiatives in partnership with state and local organizations to shore up arts and humanities access in underserved communities. Government grants are offered to cultural institutions and individuals who submit outstanding proposals that hold up to objective vetting and review. The NEH has supported the creation of 16 Pulitzer Prize-winning books and Ken Burns’ iconic documentary “The Civil War.” The NEA also helped get the Sundance Film Festival off the ground.
In a statement responding to the report, literary human rights organization PEN America denounced the alleged proposed cuts as a sign of a “new Dark Ages,” arguing: “The announcement that this is even under consideration casts a sinister cloud over our vibrant national culture.”
Of course, shutting down the NEA and NEH isn’t as simple as a presidential decree issued on Jan. 21. As writer Celeste Pewter pointed out in an extensive Twitter thread, any proposed cuts to various government agencies would depend on Congressional budgets and appropriation:
Much as floods of phone calls from constituents resulted in GOP lawmakers backing down from a secretive push to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics earlier this month, voters opposed to the drastic cuts reported by The Hill can make supporting those budgetary changes deeply uncomfortable for their representatives. For those worried about a possible impending “Dark Ages” of the humanities, repeatedly calling congressional representatives to vocally oppose shuttering the NEA and NEH is a clear and practical next step: It could help save them.
Given Trump’s previously documented lack of interest in books and art that aren’t about himself ― as well as the Heritage Foundation’s power in his transition ― this latest report shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. But the drastic nature of the proposed cuts is nonetheless unsettling, and on the eve of the inauguration, offers a grim vision of what art and culture could face in Trump’s America if the people don’t fight hard to protect them.