FOR THE SECOND budget cycle in a row, Donald Trump is attempting to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This should not be surprising, from an administration that has shown disregard — even hostility — for government’s responsibility to provide essential human services as well as agencies that ensure the general welfare, for everything from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to the Environmental Protection Agency.
It’s not just Trump, of course, who has shown an indifference to the arts. When politicians are looking to cut budgets, the arts are the low-hanging fruit. In Massachusetts, the state arts budget has remained flat for the past three years, and that’s only because the Legislature has rejected Governor Baker’s attempts to cut it further. (Now $14 million, the state arts budget reached its peak, $27 million, in 1988.) Boston, meanwhile, despite laudable initiatives from the mayor’s office, receives some of the lowest per capita government funding for the arts among American cities.
All this despite continuing evidence that arts institutions like theaters, museums, and galleries make city streets safer; that the arts serve, and foster engagement among, underserved and minority communities; that arts education improves student performance across the disciplines; and that the arts generate millions of dollars of economic activity in the form of jobs, tickets sold, and ancillary neighborhood businesses like restaurants.
Boston itself is an arts-rich community. But a 2016 Boston Foundation report found that arts funding in Boston skewed heavily to major cultural institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and WGBH, which represent 40 percent of the city’s arts economy. Community theaters, galleries, and other neighborhood arts centers — all of which depend inordinately on ticket sales and individual donations rather than foundation and government support — struggle for sustainability.
In the arts community as in the private sector, money helps make money. That’s where the NEA and NEH come in. Their vital contributions to arts organizations across the country (the two agencies’ grants now support organizations and specific projects only, not individual artists) help legitimize and also draw dollars to needy organizations, by either requiring or offering matching funds. (The arts advocacy group MASSCreative has pointed out that for every dollar granted by the NEA, another $9 is contributed by other sources.) They guarantee the health of arts communities by helping small organizations and educational programs thrive.
In Massachusetts such groups and projects include Shelter Music Boston, which brings classical music to homeless shelters; Double Edge Theater, which has mounted the premiere of an ambitious multiculturally inspired stage production, “Invention of Reality”; Project STEP, which offers a music training program for minority students; and the Urbano Project, which brings arts education to Boston-area high schools. Other NEA-supported projects include literacy and writing programs by 826 Boston and a placemaking project in Holyoke that brings special lighting and artwork to a highway underpass walkway.
As arts advocates have pointed out, without public support, arts funding tends to gravitate toward wealthier, established institutions. Smaller initiatives, which help support artists and the communities in which they live, often go hungry. And underserved communities thereby get cut off from the arts. The arts are supposed to be for everybody. Trump’s budget guarantees that they won’t be.