Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and, most recently, Tea Party conservatives have attacked federal funding for the arts, but the National Endowment for the Arts has so far survived the broadsides.
Nevertheless, as arts advocates lobby lawmakers in Washington this week for continued government support, they face hurdles beyond just critics on the right.
“I feel a little more under threat” this year, says Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, the chief advocacy organization for the arts in Washington.
In addition to the possibility of Tea Party Republicans gaining seats in this year’s midterm elections, he cited President Obama’s 14-month delay in nominating a successor to Rocco Landesman as chairman of the NEA, Jane Chu. While he did not fault management under acting chair Joan Shigekawa, the problem is that “permanent leadership is not at the table when decisions are made.”
More recently, Lynch’s organization expressed disappointment that the most recent White House budget proposed a $146 million budget for the NEA in fiscal year 2015, from $154 million a year earlier. The NEA is the chief grant-making body to arts organizations, including non-profit theater groups, music organizations and filmmakers and documentarians.
“These are not things that give you confidence” in the commitment to the arts, Lynch says.
But he also pointed to the more philosophical rhetoric on the value of the arts, and to recent remarks from such figures as Bill Gates, who in an interview with the Financial Times last year questioned the value of donating to arts and humanities rather than to eradicating diseases, and even to Obama, who in a speech at a General Electric plant in January said that “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” The President later apologized.
To that end, Lynch and other advocates announced plans to give their argument a boost.
Ovation, the cable arts network, is launching an initiative through its foundation called Stand For the Arts, designed to mobilize support not just for the NEA but state and local government arts agencies.
Sonia Tower, senior VP of corporate relations for Ovation and president of the Ovation Foundation, said that the initiative will be promoted on the channel as a “much-needed resource for action.”
Among those in Washington on Monday to advocate for funding was Alec Baldwin, while New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy at the Kennedy Center.
Charles Segars, the CEO of Ovation, argued that what often gets ignored is the “return on investment” that public funding brings to communities. And while those opposed to federal arts funding have long argued that significant cuts could be made up for via private donations, Segars said that the grant-making of the NEA serves as a “seal of approval” that gives confidence to private donors giving matching support.
“I do believe that the arts are our greatest expression of our democracy, and right now we are failing,” he said.