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How Arts Advocates Plan to Save the NEA

President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget calls for eliminating federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the chief grant-making agency to arts organizations and projects across the country.

The NEA has been a target before. Back in the 1990s, congressional Republicans sought its elimination, but it was saved albeit its budget being slashed. In the early 1980s, some in the Reagan administration sought to scale it back, but entertainment figures such as Charlton Heston appealed to the president after co-chairing a task force.

This time is different. Trump is the first president to propose eliminating all funding for the NEA, according to Americans for the Arts, which advocates for federal arts funding. It’s part of his budget that envisions cuts across the board to Medicaid, the EPA, food-stamp programs, and scientific research.

The elimination of the NEA was expected, as the White House released details of its budget plans back in March.

Since then, there has been good news and bad news for arts advocates. The good news is that the NEA and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, actually got a slight increase in funding in the budget legislation that was hashed out last month to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year, or through Sept. 30. Trump signed that budget package, albeit a bit reluctantly.

The bad news for arts groups is that the White House has not given up on the idea of eliminating the NEA, the NEH, or another cultural institution, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in March that continued funding for the agencies was “something we cannot defend anymore.” He was just as adamant in press appearances on Monday and Tuesday.

The White House, however, doesn’t set the budget; Congress does. That is where advocates express some degree of confidence that the NEA, along with other cultural agencies, will survive beyond 2018.

“When it comes to Congress, I feel like we are in a very good position,” says Nina Ozlu Tunceli, chief counsel of government and public affairs for Americans for the Arts. “What we are concerned about is not the elimination of agencies, but an insufficient budget allocation.”

In other words, if so-called “discretionary” spending is cut across the board, the worry is that the NEA will see disproportionate cuts to its budget.

She said that the concern is that “at some point these members are going to have to make a Sophie’s choice. We just need to make sure we stay atop the appropriations heap.”

With the NEA again a target, Americans for the Arts for the first time retained an outside counsel, Brownstein Hyatt, which on a pro bono basis has helped them “shore up our support in Congress,” Tunceli said. That has included setting up meetings with some members of the Republican leadership and on key committees.

She said that after the meetings with Republican members, she found that “there is really no appetite to eliminate these cultural agencies.” Tunceli makes the case that the NEA’s grants have helped spur economic development, enjoy support on both sides of the aisle and, with an annual appropriation hovering around $150 million, are a tiny sliver of the overall budget.

She also is optimistic of the support of the leaders of the Senate and House appropriations subcommittees that oversee arts funding. That includes Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the interior and environment appropriations subcommittee, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of its counterpart on the Senate side. Calvert, she said, was instrumental in securing an increase in NEA funding for the rest of this fiscal year. Murkowski has been public in expressing support for the NEA, and was the recipient of an award from the group for arts leadership.

On Tuesday, Calvert didn’t specifically address NEA funding, but said that his “committee will be faced with making some difficult decisions.

“As the appropriations process moves forward, I will work to provide our agencies with the resources necessary to fulfill their missions while also finding efficiencies to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used judiciously,” he said in a statement. Murkowski said that the Trump budget was “more of a vision than anything else.”

Another concern is that the budget process will drag into the next fiscal year, forcing the NEA to freeze its grant distribution until it has assurances that it will continue to receive funding for recipients in 2018. The Trump budget calls for allocating about $30 million to the NEA in 2018, but that is largely for maintaining a staff to close it down.

“We are concerned about how the NEA will operate not knowing what their final budget will be,” Tunceli said.

A number of entertainment figures have weighed in on the funding battle ahead, including Robert DeNiro, who railed against Trump’s proposed cuts at an event at the Film Society of Lincoln Center earlier this month.

Recently a number of Hollywood unions, such as SAG-AFTRA and the DGA, as well as the MPAA, signed a joint letter urging Congress to retain funding for the NEA, NEH and the CPB. Tunceli said that their support has helped, and she plans to talk further with the MPAA about having a having a larger presence in the budget battle ahead.

“We are not letting the gas off the pedal,” she said.

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