GOP candidates have been arguing for cuts

A year ago, the threat of a government shutdown was raising the prospect of a major slash in government arts funding.

This year, as arts advocates lobby for another round of funding, they face a different hurdle: the upcoming election.

The National Endowment for the Arts, which distributes federal funding to state and nonprofit arts orgs and other institutions, isn’t the punching bag that it once was at the height of the culture wars in the 1990s, but it has been a target on the campaign trail, as some of the GOP candidates cite it as an example of where to trim from the federal budget.

Front-runner Mitt Romney has called for deep cuts to the budget of the NEA, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, linking continued funding of the arts agencies to the debt and the need for the government to borrow from China. Ron Paul has long called for the outright elimination of funding for the NEA. Rick Santorum has come under attack from some conservative advocacy groups for his support of the NEA when he was in the House and Senate.

Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, the premier lobbying org for arts groups, said that while “some of the rhetoric is negative,” the records of Santorum and Romney both reflect some support for arts funding. He’s encouraged by President Obama’s request to increase funding for the NEA to $155 million, restoring it to the level before last year’s budget standoffs, when it was slashed to $146 million.

“It is a tough environment,” Lynch said. “It is very brave and very leaderly of the administration to ask for this increase because it is a time when all you are hearing about is cutbacks and cuts from government.”

“The sense I get from the White House, the sense I get from the Hill, is that there is a fairly positive energy for this fairly modest investment because of the economics of it, because it is a job creator and economic stimulator,” he added.

Last week, Lynch and Stanley Tucci, on the cusp of the opening of “The Hunger Games,” appeared before a House subcommittee on Capitol Hill to press for the budget increase. On April 16 and 17, a number of industry figures will trek to Washington to participate in a series of lobbying events, including the Americans for the Arts’ annual Nancy Hanks Lecture at the Kennedy Center, to be given this year by Alec Baldwin and featuring a performance by Ben Folds.

Advocates in entertainment say that arts funding, including federal grants, strengthens the creative sector, which benefits the industry.

“In a campaign year, it’s an easy target. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s an entitlement program,'” said Charles Segars, CEO of the Ovation cable channel, who is honorary co-chair of the lobbying event, Arts Advocacy Day. In fact, he said, the “really insignificant” among of money that is spent on the arts is invested “like venture capital,” creating jobs at the state and local level.

“For every dollar that the NEA invests, four come back,” he said.

Actor Hill Harper, who will lobby next month, said that “the issue around arts funding has become politicized, which is just not right and not correct. Whenever anything becomes politicized, reasoning goes out the window, because they are using it for a different purpose other than what the efficacy and value is.”

Opponents, he added, “make it seem as if the amount of money spent on the NEA is like military spending, when it is really a minute, minute fraction of that.”

But in contrast to the ’90s, when federal funding of individual artists riled social conservatives, candidates are looking to turn the NEA into a more philosophical argument about the role and size of government.

Romney wrote in a USA Today op-ed in November: “There are many things government does that we may like but that we do not need. The test should be this: ‘Is this program so critical that it is worth borrowing money to pay for it?'”

Americans for the Arts has been taking to the campaign trail, having done three events in Iowa ahead of the caucuses there, and forums are planned at the Democratic and Republican conventions in late summer. A chief argument has been that public arts funding is the endorsement that many orgs need to draw private investment. On a visit this month to Kansas, where all state arts funding was slashed last year, NEA chairman Rocco Landesman argued that federal funding is necessary because many projects wouldn’t stand a chance of being made if weighed on the basis of commercial viability like a major feature film. “The reason we have public funding of the arts, and the reason we have the NEA at all, is so the marketplace is not the sole determinant of what is seen and what is excellent,” he said, according to the Lawrence Journal-World.

Lynch is counting on swaying lawmakers with extensive economic data showing that the nonprofit arts and culture sector generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year, and 5.7 million full-time equivalent jobs.

Despite cuts at the federal level and in state budgets, “This is a positive story of an industry that has remained extremely resilient in today’s economy,” he said. “Nonprofit arts organizations have held on, to everyone’s surprise.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more