The first months of President Donald Trump’s administration have been tumultuous, to say the least. Between high-profile battles with Congress, a controversial staff, and one scandal after another, his name has consistently plastered the front page of every newspaper — and for the wrong reasons. However, the stream of missteps the White House has made has overshadowed a smaller, but equally disturbing, development. Trump, with the backing of many congressional Republicans, has proposed in his most recent budget to completely defund the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
These two organizations together provide a little under $300 million in annual funding to artists and organizations all around the country. That’s a huge sum for the arts community, but mere pocket change for the federal government. Take the NEA, for example, which in 2014 gave out approximately 2000 individual grants. Approximately 50 percent of those grants went to small organizations, usually in amounts under $40,000. That money can be make-or-break for those that receive it; many programs it supports would shut down for lack of funding otherwise. That includes programs providing artistic engagement for the disabled, the poor, and veterans. Furthermore, the organization does its best to equitably distribute aid amongst all 50 states, so 40% of its budget passes directly to state and local organizations to distribute for their regions’ specific cultural needs.
Despite taking up only 0.008 percent of the federal budget, these two organizations are often on congressional Republicans’ chopping blocks. This dates back to the “culture wars” of the 1990s, as traditional-values conservatives fought against what they perceived as “waste” and the degradation of moral values in the government. The organization has, in the past, funded some extremely controversial works of art that were nearly pornographic, or just too weird for many congressional observers. These include projects entitled “Genital Wallpaper” and “Piss Christ.” Republicans see these as proof that the NEA is a form of welfare for liberal elites and that it does nothing for blue-collar and rural Americans. They saw it as making working-class Americans pay for wealthy New Yorkers’ trips to the contemporary arts exhibits or the opera. However, eliminating the NEA would, in fact, all but guarantee that art becomes the exclusively elite pastime that they believe it to be. In large cities, the wealthy (and their businesses) can give hundreds of millions of dollars to the arts. Rural and impoverished towns don’t have that option, which is where the NEA steps in. In many communities, local, state, and federal government funding is the only source of revenue for arts organizations. The NEA grants in these areas help fund arts camps, music education, and the work of local artists. For example, a recent New York Times article gave the example of a performance of Hamlet in a small North Dakota town that will be seen by people who likely have never seen a play before, let alone Shakespeare.
We here in Princeton are lucky because there is no shortage of support for our town’s Arts Council, theater, and orchestra: wealthy residents, large corporations, and the University give millions of dollars a year to such causes. Even so, the NEA and NEH do a lot of good in the Princeton community: dozens of events at the Princeton Public Library, Arts Council, and elsewhere were funded by these organizations. This includes performances at the library by PHS students. Many communities, especially in the Midwest, don’t have all the resources that Princeton has. The NEA is the only thing that can fill that gap — so let’s ensure that it’s here to stay.