WITH SPITEFUL, RECKLESS policies emanating from the White House every day, threatening real lives as well as the national character, it may seem trivial to worry about the arts. But few things provide more solace in hard times than art, or better promote empathy and human connection. No wonder people fear president Trump has no use for it.
A report last month in The Hill, a respected Washington newsletter, said that members of Trump’s transition team are preparing a budget blueprint to cut federal spending by over $1 trillion a year. Among the scythes sweeping through the plan — modeled closely after a proposal by the Heritage Foundation — are the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
It’s tempting to hope that this latest threat will be just another passing skirmish in the culture wars. The arts agencies, and public broadcasting, have been targeted before – usually when some edgy provocateur touches on a volatile social issue. Conservatives rage, until Big Bird comes to the rescue and cultural funding is mostly restored. But one thing we have learned in the tumultuous first weeks of this presidency is that Donald Trump’s pronouncements are not metaphor. It is better to take him literally.
So what would it mean to eliminate the NEA?
The $148 million agency doesn’t fund individual artists directly, but supports local arts councils that distribute grants. Sure, beloved institutions like the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Fine Arts are recipients, but most of the money goes to small arts companies that would otherwise struggle financially or fold.
The latest round of NEA funding for Massachusetts includes money for Project Step, which gives lessons in classical string instruments to talented minority students; the Anna Myer Dancers of Cambridge, which brings modern dancers and professional poets together with urban teenagers to examine issues of race in America; Shelter Music Boston Inc., which sends accomplished musicians to perform in homeless shelters; and a Huntington Theatre production of a new work by Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar, about the role of women in Islam. Outside Boston, the NEA underwrites the Military Healing Arts Partnership, an arts therapy program that helps service members overcome war trauma and reintegrate into civilian life. The grants touch people in every county in every state.
The total cost per American for the entire annual NEA budget? Forty-six cents, less than the price of a postage stamp.
The tiny cost suggests something else is at issue besides balancing the budget, and indeed the case against the NEA is mostly ideological. Opponents of government funding argue that there is ample private money to support the arts, that taxpayers shouldn’t support art they find offensive or banal, and that if an artist can’t succeed in the free market, the work must not be any good. But without public funding, only the most popular or commercial work will be seen. Of course the government has a role in fostering culture. What’s next? The Library of Congress? The Smithsonian Institution?
Some arts patrons are trying to appeal to Trump’s own values to save the NEA, noting that the arts economy generates millions of jobs that can’t be outsourced and billions in economic activity. That’s true enough. But more persuasive is the argument advanced by cellist Yo Yo Ma, who has been advocating for more arts education in schools. Besides flexible thinking, innovation, and collaboration, he says, art teaches empathy: “the ultimate quality that acknowledges our identity as members of one human family.” From the expressive dance of Mark Morris to the embracing poetry of Emma Lazarus, art has the power to console, transform, welcome, and heal. It’s what the world needs now.Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.