Arts groups gear up for fight over NEA

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Advocates for the arts and public broadcasting are sounding the alarm over possible cuts to federal funding that one lawmaker said could be a sign of a cultural dark age under Donald Trump’s presidency.

The Hill reported Thursday that the Trump transition team is considering privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CBP) and eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The proposals are under consideration as part of massive budget cuts meant to reduce federal spending by trillions over the next decade.

{mosads}While public broadcasting and the two arts programs have been popular conservative targets for decades, control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue gives the GOP a real chance to achieve a long sought-after goal.

Arts groups say they recognize a real risk.

“Even apart from the essential resources at stake, the signal sent by this gesture is a slap in the face to artists, writers, researchers, and scholars who are learning that the administration seems to consider their work worthless,” said Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN America.

Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat whose district includes the city of Memphis, said arts programs were essential to his constituents.

“On the eve of the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, I fear that America will soon be thrust into cultural and societal deterioration, a new Dark Ages,” he said in a statement. 

Funding for the national endowments and the CPB are a relatively thin slice of the nearly $4 trillion federal budget. The CPB received $445 million from the federal government in 2016, while the NEA secured $148 million, the same amount requested by the NEH. 

But the two programs have long been targeted by conservatives who hold them up as examples of unnecessary government spending.

President Ronald Reagan tried to abolish the NEA in when he came into office in 1981 but later backtracked after a task force he formally tasked with finding ways to privatize arts support instead recommended continuing the agency’s existing structures. Reagan also met resistance in Congress in trying to cut the NEA’s funding.

Conservatives have argued some of the programs that have benefited from NEA and NEH grants are overly controversial or frivolous and shouldn’t get government backing.

National endowment grants typically go to museums, universities, libraries and individual artists or scholars. But some grants have courted controversy in the past.

In 1989, GOP senators denounced a photograph known as “Piss Christ” — which depicted a crucifix in a glass of the artist’s urine — that had been displayed in a three-city art exhibit organized by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. The center had received an NEA grant for the art competition that selected the photograph for display. 

When Republicans gained a House majority for the first time in decades in 1994, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) sought to eliminate the NEA and NEH but was rebuffed by Democrats and moderate Republicans. Compromise spending legislation in 1996 signed by then-President Clinton cut the NEA’s budget by 39 percent and the NEH by 36 percent. 

Past budgets unveiled by the conservative Republican Study Committee, as well as the official House GOP budgets, have also proposed eliminating the national endowments.

Former Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation in 2014 to eliminate the NEH’s funding, citing grants that went to studies about romance in popular culture, as well as a documentary on comic book superheroes. 

 Even so, appropriators in the House and Senate have included funding for the programs throughout the last six years when Republicans controlled one or both chambers. 

In 2012, the issue of public broadcasting resurfaced when GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said he wanted to cut its federal subsidies. President Obama’s reelection campaign fired back with an ad featuring Big Bird from “Sesame Street.”

Eliminating the arts support programs could put a crunch on programs across the country.

Alan Fletcher, the president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, estimated the festival he manages receives about $50,000 worth of NEA grants a year. 

Both Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence have expressed support for the arts in the past.

Patrick Butler, the president and CEO of America’s Public Television Stations, noted in a statement to The Hill that Pence accepted his group’s Champion of Public Broadcasting award in 2014 while serving as Indiana governor. 

And while Trump said in a March 2016 statement to The Washington Post that Congress should be responsible for how much to spend on the national endowments, he stressed support for a “holistic education” that includes emphasis on arts and literature.  

“The Congress, as representatives of the people, make the determination as to what the spending priorities ought to be. I had the great fortune to receive a comprehensive liberal arts education from an Ivy League institution. What is most important is that we examine how one-size-fits-all approaches imposed by the federal government have corrupted the availability and efficacy of liberal arts education. Critical thinking skills, the ability to read, write and do basic math are still the keys to economic success. A holistic education that includes literature and the arts is just as critical to creating good citizens,” Trump said.

Public broadcasting advocates point out that Trump’s voter base benefits significantly from the federal subsidies. 

The CPB says that 219 of the 577 public television and radio stations receiving the federal grants are in rural areas. The nonprofit corporation provided more than $94 million to those stations, which employ over 4,600 people. Indeed, CPB calculated that rural stations depend more on the grants more than the ones in urban areas. 

Even so, arts advocates are bracing for a fight. 

“I don’t take anything for granted with the will of an elected body, whether it’s federal state or local. Anything can happen,” said Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. “So it’s important for the arts community to voice its concerns as much as possible.”

Tags CPB Donald Trump Matt Salmon Mike Pence NEA NEH PBS

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