Starving the arts: How the White House budget threatens creativity
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Kickstarter was launched in 2009 — not by a computer science major or an MBA, but by an artist, a designer and me, a music critic. Arts and culture were important to us and we thought a lot of other people, too. It took off. 

When a Washington Post headline a few years later declared "Kickstarter raises more money for artists than the NEA,” I felt both humility and apprehension. We were mentioned in the same breath as the National Endowment for the Arts, an organization whose mission we admire deeply. But I worried our success might be seen as an argument that the private sector alone should address arts funding.

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Those fears have borne out. The endowment is in existential trouble. The Trump administration would like to cut off funding to the NEA, which totals $148 million a year. The good news is the White House can’t strip the endowment’s funding without Congress. As I found in a trip to Congress last month, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle do see the value in the NEA. As one Republican staffer put it: “I truly have not met a member who opposes funding” for the NEA.

 

The bad news is that most Republicans are not willing to admit their support in public. The GOP’s philosophy of growing the private sector takes precedent over an efficient program that supports people in every single congressional district in America. Every lawmaker can point to an NEA-funded cultural project funded in their district that has brought jobs and quality of life: a music and mentorship program for students in Maryland, a professional development program for teachers in Kentucky, or a museum in southwest Virginia. 

When Kickstarter’s General Counsel, Michal Rosenn, and I met with Democrats and Republicans in Congress, we wanted to make one thing clear: the private sector alone cannot support cultural funding in America. A public investment in the arts the way the NEA handles it is irreplaceable. The NEA’s reach — with funds distributed through state and local arts organizations — is broad and deep. 

Today, Kickstarter is arguably the largest arts funding organization in the private sector. If you wanted to know whether the private sector could fill the inevitable void left by abolishing the NEA, lawmakers might start by looking here.  

After eight years, 13 million people around the world have pledged more than $3 billion to creators on Kickstarter. More than 125,000 works of art, albums, books, films, theatrical productions, games and innovations have been funded to date. And according to research by the University of Pennsylvania, all those creative projects on Kickstarter have generated 300,000 new part-time and full-time jobs, and nearly 10,000 new companies and nonprofits. 

All in all it’s a pretty bright picture, one that we’re immensely proud of. But in no way is Kickstarter an alternative to the NEA — and Congress should recognize that.

We know from the same research that Kickstarter creators often rely on multiple funding sources to get new ideas off the ground. Grants from the NEA, and organizations like it, can be crucial to the overall funding picture for many projects. And while backers on Kickstarter and judges from the National Council on the Arts both start from a shared belief in creators, each takes a different approach in deciding how to allocate funds. 

Those approaches lead to different decisions, which lead to a broader set of ideas being funded. A diverse arts funding market served by both the public and private sectors is critical — market forces alone should not drive our nation’s investment in culture. That would shape our society in ways that exclude voices and ideas from the vast majority of American communities.

The NEA guarantees broad reach. Each and every year it distributes grants to cultural organizations whose work reaches the most diverse group of Americans imaginable — rural, urban, rich, poor, everyone. The projects funded by the NEA are real and tangible to the people who serve and live in those communities. 

And for every dollar of the endowment's budget that it awards in grants, it generates nearly ten times as much in matching support, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars more to working artists and local economies. Beyond money, the NEA is a powerful symbol of our shared cultural heritage, and a public commitment to our collective future — an investment in the NEA is an investment in bringing our country closer together.  

It’s time to stop debating the existence of the NEA. It’s time to start discussing how to make it stronger than ever. Let’s imagine an America where cultural centers and events are the norm in every town and city — not just places like New York, Nashville and Washington. Let’s strive for an America where the young and ambitious don’t need to move to cities to engage with culture.  

Congress must keep the NEA’s budget in 2018 and continue championing art and arts funding in America.

Yancey Strickler is the co-founder and CEO of Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform helping artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers and other creators secure resources and support for their ideas. Prior to Kickstarter, Strickler was a music journalist published in The Village Voice, New York magazine and Pitchfork. Follow him on Twitter @ystrickler


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