Earlier this year, when it was preliminarily reported that Donald Trump planned to eliminate funding for the National Endowment of the Arts, an internet meme surfaced featuring Winston Churchill. According to the meme, when confronted with the prospect of defunding the arts during WWII, the British prime minister wondered aloud, “Then what are we fighting for?”
Perhaps predictably, the meme is bullshit. All the same, prior to the war, Churchill absolutely said the following: “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them. … Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.”
The legislation that created the United States’ arts and humanities endowments, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, said this: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”
This is all to say that, until now, governments of first-world countries, including our own, have recognized the value of the arts. Eliminating the NEA from the federal budget will save taxpayers $148 million annually. Boston Globe columnist Renee Loth did a good job of putting that figure into perspective: “The total cost per American for the entire annual NEA budget? Forty-six cents, less than the price of a postage stamp.”
But the impact on small, not-for-profit arts organizations in cities throughout the country will be huge, L.A. included. As Jessamyn Sarmiento, the NEA’s communications director, explained via email in January, NEA grants are project-based and awarded on a yearly basis. Those grants make up 60 percent of the endowment’s budget, while the other 40 percent of the funds goes to state and regional arts organizations like the California Arts Council, which Sarmiento says “expand [the NEA’s] reach even further.” In 2016, the California Arts Council received $1,136,100 for local arts programs.
According to a search of the NEA’s website, 101 Los Angeles–based arts nonprofits received NEA grants in the 2016-17 fiscal year. The Hammer Museum received $55,000 for its retrospective of Jimmie Durham’s work (on view now). The Autry Museum received $10,000 to fund its groundbreaking Native Voices theater program. Film Forum received $30,000 for its exhibition on experimental Latin American films for this year’s multi-institutional art exhibit Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. Heart of Los Angeles Youth received $55,000 to support Gustavo Dudamel’s Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. These relatively small sums of money are funding programs that shape the landscape of the city and, in the case of something like the Youth Orchestra, will for years to come.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
But besides making sure artists and art institutions have the funds they need, the NEA makes sure the arts are accessible to everyone. Sarmiento writes, “In addition to our direct grants, the NEA works with more than 20 other federal agencies, state and local governments, state and regional arts agencies and private nonprofits on projects that provide opportunities for thousands of Americans to experience quality arts programming throughout the country.”
Then there are programs like Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, which brings art therapy to servicemen and -women dealing with ailments like PTSD at facilities including Camp Pendleton in San Diego. The Blue Star Museums program offers free museum admission to military personnel and their families from Memorial Day through Labor Day — 12 L.A. museums participated in 2016. And the Library Foundation of Los Angeles received a grant through the NEA’s Big Read program, which encourages residents of a community to all share in reading the same book.
Sarmiento says, “The grants and programs that the NEA administers are powerful examples of how the arts are a vital and valuable part of our everyday lives. In communities across the nation, NEA-supported projects ensure that the arts are accessible to all Americans, through arts education, healing arts and arts-based community development — as well as through projects that feature dance, music, visual arts, literature, folk and traditional arts, and more.” It’s a wonky way of saying: The NEA is really fucking important.
Just this morning, Donald Trump officially became the first president to suggest defunding the arts in the United States. As Winston Churchill actually said, we will be ill served by this move.