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Uncle Sam: Patron of the Arts

In the 2014 fiscal year, the United States allotted one-hundredth of one percent of its discretionary spending to the arts, at a little over $146 million. That money went to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an independent agency of the federal government, founded in 1965, which offers grant money and other support to artists and non-profits. Americans hold divergent beliefs about the appropriate level of government involvement in the creation and promotion of the arts, as a discussion of the NEA exemplifies.

The strategic plan of the NEA envisions “a nation in which the arts enrich the lives of all Americans and enhance the livability of communities” and notes “the arts’ transformative power.” With these guiding principles in mind, the primary role of the NEA is to fund arts-related projects through grants to individuals and organizations across a number of disciplines, including dance, visual arts, literature, design, opera and other music, and media arts. Recent awardees include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program, which provides free music lessons to at-risk students in East and West Baltimore, the Mississippi Museum of Art, which will use the money to create a public art trail through Jackson, LAND studio, which aims to transform East Ninth Street of Cleveland into a hub of art and design for the enjoyment of pedestrians, and the Metropolitan Opera Guild, which offers New York City and New Jersey elementary school students instruction on the composition and performance of operas.

Supporters of the NEA see its role as essential. Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, told the Chicago Tribune, “I was a little press writer when the National Endowment for the Arts came to my rescue and gave me an award. I couldn’t buy a light bulb. Almost more than the money, the awards are important because they show that someone believes in you.” Actor David Selby said in an interview, “That’s the reason support for the National Endowment of the Arts is so important. It enables those ventures that aren’t viable commercially to be done.” These artists view the NEA as vital to their success, as providing inspiration and monetary support that would not otherwise exist. Without the NEA, then, we might not have many of the works we hold dear – especially amongst communities and individuals who do not have the money to fund their own work. If only wealthy citizens and organizations have the means to pursue artistic projects, American culture would look drastically different. Therefore, the government may have an obligation to level the playing field and encourage diverse participation.

The NEA grants also provide three important external benefits: jobs, revenue, and education. Government support of the arts “creates an economic impact of $135 billion… supports 4.13 million jobs in multiple industries…[and] generates $22.3 billion in federal, state and local tax receipts.” Furthermore, “Research confirms a positive relationship between arts education and academic success for both elementary and secondary students.” Thus, NEA grants amount to an indirect government stimulus of the economy and help to promote education. According to its supporters, then, the NEA backs needed programs and spaces with tangible economic, cultural, educational and aesthetic benefits — benefits that could disappear if the federal government were to cut funding. That outcome seems increasingly more likely as the NEA’s budget stood at around $167 million in 2010 but has decreased to $146 million in 2014 — nearly a 13 percent reduction. For comparison, the defense budget for 2014 is over $600 billion.

Opponents of public funding for the arts — typically conservatives — do not share these concerns, believing that, in light of the mounting national debt, the arts could be sufficiently and more appropriately funded by private philanthropy. The external benefits of the arts, they argue, could just as easily accrue from private funding. In 2011, a group of 150 Republicans proposed a budget plan that would cut funding for the NEA to zero. Asked about his plans to cut support for several program —  including the NEA, Amtrak, and the National Endowment for the Humanities — then-presidential contender Mitt Romney said, “…those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.” Sarah Palin has been less complimentary: On a 2011 Fox News segment, she told host Sean Hannity, “NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn’t be in the business of funding with tax dollars — those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14 trillion debt that we’re going to hand to our kids and our grandkids.” In this view, the government should have no involvement in funding the arts.

Intensifying opposition to the NEA is its history of support for controversial art, including Karen Finley’s nude performances, Andres Serrano’s photographs of a crucifix submerged in urine, and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of homosexual sex. These works caused some uproar and led Congress, in 1990, to pass an amendment to the National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities Act that declared that the NEA must take into consideration “general standards of decency and respect.” Despite the new standards, the NEA has drawn lasting criticism as being sacrilegious, pornographic, disrespectful, motivated by shock value, and running counter to traditional values. Opponents do not believe that immoral art should be funded by citizens’ tax dollars; they see these projects as more appropriately funded by private donors. This, when combined with the fact that for every $1 of federal funding, the NEA receives $9 of funding from private and other public sources, lends credibility to conservatives’ faith in private philanthropy.

In response, defenders of the NEA contend that art should not have to be moral or universally acceptable to receive public funding. These limitations, they argue, run counter to the mission of the NEA by stunting artistic exploration. Furthermore, controversial pieces engage the public by inviting critical thought and discussion.

Each side of the debate envisions a very different relationship between the government and the arts. Should the government prioritize cultural development? Americans have yet to answer. However, because funding for the NEA amounts to such a small percentage of the federal budget, and because of the proven benefits of a culture rich in arts, the case for government involvement seems stronger.

About the Author

Ashleigh McEvoy '15 is a political science and gender studies double concentrator and a staff writer for BPR.