The Battle Wages On for the Arts

Posted by Mr. Robert Lynch, Apr 18, 2018

Our field collectively high-fived recently when Congress passed the long-delayed budget for fiscal year 2018. Together we beat back the Trump Administration’s proposals to terminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, funded now through September 30. Each will receive a total of $152.8 million, $3 million more a piece than last year. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who passed away last month, was a fierce champion for the arts for decades, and this win is a very fitting tribute to her longtime leadership.

It took the unified, tireless, and persistent work of the arts community and grassroots advocates nationwide to achieve this win. All last year, and also in recent months, our #SAVEtheNEA campaign sprang into action, leading to hundreds of thousands of calls and emails from every state and Congressional district, local op-eds, expanded research, newspaper ads, and office visits on Capitol Hill. In March Americans for the Arts had another record-breaking year for Arts Advocacy Day. More than 650 arts leaders from across the country convened for training on the latest in arts policy and research, and participated in more than 300 meetings on Capitol Hill. Strong activism resulted in a powerful bipartisan message that arts and humanities funding strengthens and enriches our communities and grows local economies. 

As I reflect on these great efforts and feel pride for our field’s big win, a question often nags at me: Why aren’t the arts better understood in today’s world? Back in the early days of our country, before Columbus, there was a time when art was so central to everything—clothing, ritual, pottery, and more—that there wasn’t even a word for art in most Native American communities. But things changed when the Europeans colonized and Puritans outlawed the arts. While this was almost 400 years ago, the austerity of these colonists’ ways formed the roots of our culture. Only in the last half of the 20th century did a real conversation start about the role the arts can play in our lives, and the NEA was established after a long lobbying effort in 1965. But for decades now, the NEA has been teetering on the edge of extinction, the target of some members of Congress and short-sighted groups. Today’s America sometimes focuses too much on darker elements from the days of founding the country, of keeping others out—this is the attitude that the arts keep coming up against.

Americans for the Arts’ 2016 public opinion poll found that regardless of whether people engage with the arts or not, 87 percent believe they are important to quality of life, and 82 percent believe they are important to local businesses and the economy. Despite these findings, a loud few don’t care for public funding of the arts (or public funding for most things). They believe that only private funds should support the arts as a private good for people who want to enjoy them rather than seeing the public good of the transformative power of the arts all around us. Some see the arts as “fluff,” a luxury, elitist and only accessible or of interest to those with concentrated power or wealth. Consider that the practice of arts-and-crafting continues to explode in popularity across the nation—the multibillion-dollar market for materials in the U.S. comes more from enthusiasts, not professionals. People need to realize that the NEA aims to provide access to all forms of the arts to all people, especially through grants helping rural, inner-city, and underserved communities nationwide.

We fight for the federal funding so that more people can experience the arts and the humanities and museums in ways they never would have before—from free ballet for low-income students, to blues concerts in tiny Appalachian towns, to the expansion of military healing arts programs. While we won the battle for FY 2018, there is no rest for the weary, as both the NEA and NEH received the same termination proposal put forward last year, again in the President's new budget request for FY 2019. We must fight our nation’s austerity roots of stifling the arts, be relentless in voicing a strong and clear message, and engage with our elected officials to advance pro-arts policies.

Americans for the Arts is partnering with arts leaders from around the country to bring clusters of constituents for meetings with Congress every few weeks. Starting today, leaders from California, Minnesota, Texas, and Alabama will meet their members of Congress to discuss the current political landscape and present Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 findings to illustrate the economic value of the nonprofit arts.

For all the work that has been done, and all the work that will continue this year—thank you for raising your voice for the arts! And thank you to Louise Slaughter for her leadership, dedication and friendship to the arts community in America.