WASHINGTON — The National Endowment for the Arts is again threatened with a White House budget that calls for the elimination of federal funding, but the hundreds of arts advocates who gathered on Tuesday to lobby lawmakers on Capitol Hill have reason for optimism.
When President Donald Trump’s administration presented the same proposal last year, Congress ignored it. Lawmakers even gave the NEA a slight bump up in its budget, to $150 million.
“I am a little more confident,” said Robert Lynch, the president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, noting that they have been hearing positive things from Republicans and Democrats on next year’s federal outlay.
He added, “I am always reluctant to take anything for granted because I have been here too long, 33 years in Washington. I have been through too many battles, and we lost 40% of the money 20 years ago in a battle. I know how quickly things can change and how you have to be relentless and vigilant.”
Lynch’s organization, which advocates for federal arts funding, gathered more than 600 state and local arts agency officials, civic arts leaders, and creative professionals for Arts Advocacy Day, an annual event to make the case for the federal funding, changes in tax law, support for arts eduction, and other priorities.
Lynch’s cautiousness stems in large part from past funding battles, in which NEA funding got swept up in high-profile controversy over individual artworks as well as the culture wars in general. In his successful campaign for the GOP takeover of the House in 1994, Newt Gingrich proposed eliminating the NEA, but it was ultimately preserved with a vastly reduced budget.
What is different this time around is that even though the White House has made the NEA a target for elimination, it hasn’t come with the same level of “railing against the arts,” as Lynch says, versus more general calls for across-the-board budget cuts.
Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), co-chair of the Congressional Arts Caucus, received the organization’s congressional arts leadership award, and the speakers included other lawmakers such as Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and mezzo-soprano Carla Dirlikov Canales.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) told Variety that “there is such strong bipartisan support that I think we are going to be in a good place.”
The NEA awards grants to arts organizations and other cultural groups, and the federal money is often combined with other state and local funds. Advocates also say an NEA grant helps leverage private support.
Jane Chu, the chairwoman of the NEA, told the group that the organization was seeing a shift in some of “these old stereotypical beliefs about the arts and the National Endowment for the Arts,” including the notion that the NEA only funds large organizations in large urban areas on the coasts. Instead, she emphasized how NEA grant money is distributed to all 50 states, and 65% goes to small and medium-sized organizations, and 40% of NEA-supported efforts are in high-poverty neighborhoods.
Chu was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2014 and remains in the post. Her term expires this year. Although she’s leading an agency that the current administration has targeted for cuts, the Trump administration has given little indication of a successor.
“Many people were asked to leave their jobs when the new administration came in, but she was not,” Lynch said. “I think it was because she has strong bipartisan support coming from the middle of the country, with roots in Oklahoma and Kansas and Michigan. She has a lot of credibility with the Republican leaders in those places.”