No deal for the arts: It's no surprise that Donald Trump wants to tell the arts and humanities "you're fired"

Donald Trump's proposed federal budget will eliminate the NEA. It's more of a statement about values than money

Published January 22, 2017 7:00PM (EST)

 (Getty/Alex Wong/Mireia Triguero Roura)
(Getty/Alex Wong/Mireia Triguero Roura)

With all this talk of walls and allegations of sexual assault, not to mention speculation on Russian election interference and the potential banning of Muslim immigrants, the fate of arts funding in the future Trumpscape has (understandably) not been at the top of anyone’s worry list.

But as the worry list expands, it is a question that warrants due consideration. It would come as no surprise to see national arts projects and funding cut and curbed. I wrote this opening a few days ago, and though I’d like to claim some sort of prescience, I have none. But as fate would have it, this concern was highlighted just after I filed this column, and I had to revisit the issue, as word got out about Donald Trump’s radical budget cut plan. It has the admirable goal of reducing federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years. That part sounds OK, but the question is, just what is being cut and at what cost?

I’d intended to write on what arts funding and more broadly federal funding for the humanities would look like (theoretically) under the new administration. Turns out it looks like, well, an empty hole. As reported initially by The Hill, the budget plan removes entirely the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A former aide to Republican Senator Rand Paul, Brian Darling, said that “targeting waste like the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be a good first step in showing that the Trump Administration is serious about radically reforming the federal budget.”

Ouch. Some might say that it’s a good first step in showing that the Trump administration is part of a long tradition that hails back to the Vandal tribe sweeping into Rome in A.D. 455 to strip it of its culture and leave a smoldering (but “radically reformed”) ruin in its wake.

But it is not only a Trump-y phenomenon to dismiss the value of art and its study, with the consideration that it feels “soft” or not ends driven. Certain U.K. politicians tried to dispose of art history as a field of study late last year, deeming it of no particular use. The uproar was such that the subject was “saved” in national curricula (as we examined last week).

It is easy to see something similar happening in the U.S. Not that art and art history would disappear altogether. It would always be present in private schools and colleges and available to the affluent and those in metropolitan areas. But it might cease to be an option for anyone studying in a governmentally funded institution or living in rural communities — or simply without the means to afford it once art becomes a luxury.

A few years back a colleague of mine got a nasty surprise while running Scotland Yard’s arts and antiques unit, which is responsible for investigating art crime in London. During a debate in the British House of Lords, there was a misunderstanding to the effect that this police unit was receiving private funds and therefore no longer needed government support. It was not. Oops. State funding was cut and the unit was left with nothing. This was fairly swiftly corrected, but it is indicative of a problem.

At least in Western countries, there’s a tendency to feel that art should be privately funded. There’s a twofold rationale to this: First, at least in the U.S., it is almost entirely privately funded and has been that way for a long time, so there’s that habit in place. Second, there’s the notion that art might be very nice for some people, but it’s not important enough to receive government funding (or at least not very much of it). That line of thinking seems to even extend to police units that deal with art.

The idea that arts funding in America should be largely funded by private philanthropy is nothing new. Almost all arts funding in the U.S. comes from private sources, ranging from individual patrons to organizations like United States Artists, which has issued more than $20 million in unrestricted grants (usually valued at $50,000 apiece) to creators in all genres, from writers and musicians and to dancers and craftspeople.

“Lack of government support for artists made it far more challenging to work outside of urban centers, make non-commercial work, and create work about the lives and stories of undocumented Americans, queer people, people of color [and indigenous] makers,” said Meg Leary, director of programs at United States Artists. (Her organization was founded 10 years ago in response to the removal of National Endowment for the Arts’ funding for individual visual and performing artists.)

“There is no lack of material for artists to grapple with," Ed Winstead of the Cultural Counsel said, adding, "There is a lack of resources. The National Endowment for the Arts has played an increasingly marginal role in supporting artists, especially those not working with major institutions in urban areas,” Winstead said. The funding is limited and those who get it seems likewise.

According to the NEA, for performing arts funding in the U.S. from 2006 to 2010, almost 45 percent came from donations (with 41.5 percent of that derived from private sources and only 3.3 percent from state or federal governmental ones). The rest was derived from generated income or interest on endowments. That amounts to about 97 percent private funding or generated income. Corporate donations to the arts  dropped steadily and dramatically from 2007 to 2010, whereas funding from foundations sharply increased in 2008 (during the heart of the recession) in direct response to the lack of funding elsewhere. Then that funding returned to its previous level and is slowly declining.

In sharp contrast to the U.S., European nations tend to fund the arts almost entirely through government funding. Ninety nine percent of arts funding in Slovenia, for instance, comes from the government. The resources that governments dedicate to the arts, which are often the first to be cut when budgets need tightening, seem to constantly get lower. This means that less art is produced, and fewer artists can create.

The nature of the American economy, particularly with tax breaks for the wealthy who support nonprofits and the arts, is set up to promote private philanthropy, and enough Americans have enough surplus wealth to keep the arts afloat. This is not the case in many European countries, let alone elsewhere in the world. In Slovenia, for instance, there is no tangible tax benefit for donating money to charities.

In December 2015, the U.S. Congress increased NEA funding from $146 million to $148 million. Americans were polled by Americans for the Arts at that time, and 55 percent of those surveyed supported an increase in arts funding, to $1 per capita. The funding increase that year, of $2 million, came out to be just $0.46 per capita. Such an increase was more academic than game changing, throwing a bone in the right direction, but a very small bone. Still, one wonders what the numbers would look like now.

Leary noted that the current, polarized cultural climate is reminiscent of the culture wars "that spurred the creation of this organization and it was makes our work just as vital and relevant today," adding, "The vision of United States Artists is to not prioritize one type of creative output, maker, or aesthetic over another.” Leary is right in saying that artists and creators in any field “are all working toward the common cause of sharing a vital piece of themselves with others. I don’t think there is a more powerful tool we can use as a model to heal the rifts we face as a country.”

A lot of folks, when they think of visual art, imagine market-focused works that are made to sell. Members of the general public feel distanced from a lot of  contemporary art because they feel like they don’t get it. (Often they don't make an effort to do so, dismissing nonformal art at first glance.) This is also true because the amount of money that top-tier artworks sell for makes them seem kooky dooks, outrageous to your average Joe (and to me, too).

These ideas twist together and lead people to believe the following erroneous thoughts: Art isn’t for most people. It sells for crazy money and therefore the field is largely self-funded. Art is for a moneyed elite and therefore should be paid for by this audience not by taxpayers. And art doesn’t really “do” anything and therefore should be considered a hobby or lark, not something that helps a nation and its people.

Art and the art world are admittedly not very good at making their case to the everyman. Those in the high-end art community (within the museum and academic spheres and within the trade) tend to give off a vibe of enjoying the sense that they are part of an elite club to which not everyone is invited. So aside from artists, collectors and art history professors with Salon columns, who loves art?

The organization Americans for the Arts offers some encouraging statistics, based on 3,000 people polled. But while its polling sample was multiracial, it’s hard to imagine that it crossed broad socioeconomic brackets. I like the sound of statistics like 87 percent of those polled believed arts are important to quality of life and that 82 percent said arts are important to the local economy.

But I wonder how many Trump voters made up the 73 percent who said that the arts are “a positive experience in a troubled world” or the 63 percent who said that the arts “lift me up beyond everyday experiences.” I agree with these sentiments, but then of course, I would: I come from a Caucasian, middle-class family in a New England coastal city with university professor parents. I have multiple postgraduate degrees and I’m an art historian.

To be fair, arts funding could be diversified. It tends to go to people already with a high profile and based in urban centers — arguably those who need it less than others. I don’t feel the need (or have the energy) to argue how important the arts are. To some readers, I’d be preaching to the converted. For others, whatever examples I present would be insufficient to change inert minds. But it seems certain that those in power in the U.S. these days are less than sensitive to the value of fine art, in any form. I would love to be proved wrong, but it appears that art will need to rely on private support more than ever.

Stacy Switzer, executive director of the Los Angeles-based philanthropic research group, Fathomers, agreed. “So much is unpredictable in this moment, but I believe that, in times of crisis, people step up. Creativity is a cornerstone of any great society,” Switzer said. “What’s needed now isn’t more artwork that feeds the market, though. We need work that tears down walls and trespasses across boundaries — work that truly changes us, and reminds us who we can be on our best days.”

It is easy to imagine how those in power rationalize thinking that the arts are all well and good for some folks, but it shouldn’t be the government’s job to fund them, and so the Trump administration's proposal to slash funding was a foregone conclusion. From a Trump-y businessman perspective, I can see his rationale: Arts in the U.S. is being funded almost entirely by private means, and the sector is doing fine.

The $148 million budget for the NEA was such a drop in the ocean, if we look at total arts funding, that it “would not be missed.” In the States, private support will always be present (as long as tax breaks continue to encourage it). But this is part and parcel of the general discussion very much in the Zeitgeist over the past year, What exactly are arts and humanities are good for?

There is also a symbolic issue at stake that is perhaps more important: What kind of a country refuses to fund arts and humanities? Oceania, the dystopian state of George Orwell’s “1984,” didn’t support the arts. (Not that the current administration would encourage reading such rubbish. Is that the sort of country we want to be associated with?)

There’s a sense that Republican leaders and their constituencies — and President Trump overtly — just don’t get it, don’t grasp the value of art, just as they fail to understand the reason for studying the humanities. Perhaps, without consciously acknowledging it, they are scared. Because art is one of the few things that has the power to liberate, to overthrow, to topple, to rebel, to express the forbidden, to cut the tyrants down to size? Perhaps it is a sort of secret language, only for the “elite”: But in this case, the elite are not the wealthy. These elite are those with open, rich and thoughtful minds.

By Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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