Creative Groups Aim to Protect NEA, PBS From Trump’s Threatened Budget Cuts

Creative Groups Hope to Protect NEA,
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Hollywood figures have lined up in opposition to President Donald Trump on a number of fronts, but the coming months may see a lobbying battle on an issue that hits especially close to home: funding for the arts.

A report in The Hill just a day before Trump was sworn into office revealed that members of his transition team have a plan to shrink the federal bureaucracy that would include eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, which for the past 50 years has been the main outlet for government grants to arts organizations. Another part of the plan would privatize the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, which provides funding to PBS and public radio stations, including NPR.

No decision has been made as to whether such cuts will be included in Trump’s ultimate spending proposal to Congress, according to sources familiar with the planning. The proposal, in fact, may not come until later in February, around the time Trump is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress, or even after that. Nevertheless, among arts advocates, nonprofits, and showbiz figures who have long been champions of federal support, there is concern and, already, a degree of mobilization.

The Red Press for Variety

“I think it is going to galvanize a lot of artists and a lot of citizens to scream and yell to save the NEA,” says Tim Daly, president of advocacy group the Creative Coalition. “I also think there are a lot of politicians on both sides of the aisle who understand the importance of what we do. I think we’re going to be OK, but we’re going to have a fight.”

Actress Alfre Woodard, a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities under Obama, is among those raising her voice. “The NEA and NEH are enlightened collaborations between the U.S. government and its citizens, bringing the best and varied artistic expressions of who we are as a people into the public square,” she tells Variety. “It is vital to the health of a democracy that government supports art, artists, humanists.”

Americans for the Arts in D.C. is asking members to contact congressional representatives and invite them to attend an Arts Advocacy event on March 21, as well as to sign a petition calling for support of the arts.

The question is what role showbiz figures will play, and whether their participation will help or hurt. The NEA doesn’t fund big studio projects or Broadway productions but gives much-needed grants to arts organizations that contribute to community revitalization, including music programs for inner-city youths, local theater groups, arts education, dance repertories, and art therapy for wounded veterans.

Major celebrities routinely become targets when they speak out on polarizing political topics. But they have a much better rationale for making their opinions known about arts funding. Action stars and directors may not have much in common with the groups that receive NEA support, but they are all part of creative industries. Alec Baldwin and Kerry Washington are among those who have testified before Congress on the importance of arts funding.

In the past, the agencies have survived bitter budget battles. In the 1980s, when President Reagan took office, his team considered a proposal to drastically reduce NEA funding. A task force co-chaired by Charlton Heston helped convince Reagan to support saving the agency. The NEA was in the crosshairs again in 1995, when lawmakers in the Republican majority, some of them upset over its funding of controversial artworks, considered its elimination. Heston testified before Congress that year, and again the agency survived.

But circumstances have changed in the years since. Romina Boccia, research fellow in federal budgetary affairs for the think tank the Heritage Foundation, argues that “federal involvement in the arts is neither desirable nor necessary,” and notes that the NEA outlay is a “minimal amount” compared with the sums that come from private charitable contributions. She says further private support could make up the difference.

Arts funding “is just completely outside the purview of what the government should be concerned about,” Boccia says. “Art is very subjective. What some consider great art, others find offensive.”

Groups like Americans for the Arts counter that the NEA is the single largest national funder of nonprofit arts and that it helps leverage matching contributions from private and other public sources. They also note that grants are decided by peer review panels, not by government bureaucrats.

Arts advocates are anxious to know where Trump stands. He told The Washington Post last year that “supporting and advocating for appreciation of the arts is important to an informed and aware society” but added that it would be up to Congress to decide if government funding is a priority. Still, his administration’s budget will, obviously, carry some weight once it lands on Capitol Hill.

“The argument to eliminate or slash federal arts funding comes up every year, and your collective efforts have stopped that from happening in the past,” Robert Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts, wrote in a letter to members last week. “But in the current political environment, it is critical that all of us redouble our efforts.”

During the executive branch’s transition period, there was a report that Trump was looking to Sylvester Stallone to take a major arts role, perhaps even as NEA chairman. As unusual as the idea seemed, it gave some arts advocates confidence that Trump was looking for a high-profile figure who could call attention to arts issues. Still, one source familiar with the administration says that although word leaked of Stallone’s possible involvement, there was never an offer.

There are reasons for caution when it comes to entertainment figures politicizing the issue of arts funding. Trump doesn’t exactly have a warm relationship with industry progressives. After Meryl Streep spoke out at the Golden Globes, he called her talents “overblown.” The morning after the Women’s March drew overwhelming crowds, he said on Twitter that “celebs hurt the cause badly.”

Eric Ortner, a producer and manager who was a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities under Obama, cautioned: “I don’t think it helps the overall
goal to have this be about Hollywood yet. This is about arts in schools and artists’ [groups] and how that works. This is where they can be more effective than for one TV star to say, ‘I would not be rich and famous were it not for the arts.’ ”

Ortner says celebrity figures should be savvy in how they approach the issue; for example, making appeals to lawmakers who themselves are artists, as well as pointing out how the funding affects ordinary people. “We are going to have a big fight on our hands,” Ortner says,“but I don’t think the question is, ‘Should we send Alec Baldwin to the Hill?’ The question is, ‘How do we talk about the work?’ ”

Key to this, he says, will be highlighting programs in local districts to justify how they help the economy. “That’s where I think the debate is helpful and celebrities are most helpful,” he notes.

The idea of privatizing the CPB has come up before. The CPB received an appropriation of $445 million in 2016, a level of support it has had for several years. Privatization “would be devastating to public television,” says Patrick Butler, president of D.C. advocacy group America’s Public Television Stations. “I think we have a big fight on our hands if this ends up being embraced by the president.”

Trump, he says, has not weighed in on federal funding for public television, but APTS is prepared to point to a December GPG/Morning Consult survey showing that 53% of Trump voters favor spending the same amount or more for public media.

The CPB has been threatened with cuts before; most recently, in a 2012 presidential debate between Obama and Mitt Romney. The suggestion was met with criticism on social media and, Butler says, “by millions of people who called their congressional representatives and said, ‘That is a terrible idea.’”

The Corp. for Public Broadcasting depends on viewers calling their representatives. Public television advocates in the past have been effective in rallying support, enlisting PBS characters like Elmo and Arthur of “Sesame Street” to call attention to their cause and, ultimately, rile up parents.

Butler says his group has not issued a call to celebrities, but notes that they “would be very helpful to us. They are listened to by the American people. To the extent that they can say how important it is to them and important to culture and democracy, that would be hugely important.”

For now, though, the stance among many of the federal-funding supporters in the entertainment community is to not be alarmed but to stay vigilant.

“I would be inclined to wait and see how things develop,” says George Stevens Jr., another chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities under Obama. “The value of arts in society, the enormous effectiveness of the arts in education, have really taken hold in this country. I would be hopeful that when people involved look at it very carefully, and hear from different people, that the NEA would remain in place.”

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.