January 25, 2017

Trump’s Plans to Cut Arts and Culture Funds Have Local Implications

Among the Trump administration’s planned budget cuts are the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. While this isn’t the first time these two agencies have been targeted, the current threats have culturally-minded citizens concerned.

The NEA and NEH, which at 0.02 percent represent only a small slice of the Federal budget, help fund locally-based arts and cultural organizations. The Princeton Public Library; People & Stories, Gente y Cuentos; McCarter Theatre; and Trenton’s Passage Theatre Company are among those that have received support. But landing a grant from the NEA or NEH isn’t only about finances.

“It’s the symbolism of it as well,” said Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter Theatre. “We not only get the money from them, we have the imprimatur. And that can be leveraged.”

Only last month, McCarter received a $35,000 grant to support a year-round creative incubator for writers in all stages of their careers. Ms. Mann is “very alarmed,” she said last week, at the current threats. “The NEA has been so supportive of McCarter. I think what is really important is that people understand that the arts are not a luxury. They are essential to a healthy democracy, the heart and soul of a community and a country. When you look at history, the great civilizations are remembered for their arts and humanities. The destruction of the arts and lack of understanding of the essential side of the arts to a nation is the beginning of the downfall of a nation.”

Stanley Katz, a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and director of its Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, is concerned. But he doesn’t necessarily see doom for the NEA and NEH in the near future.

“It’s too soon to tell. We really don’t know what is going to happen,” he said last week. “I think it’s very unlikely that they will completely abolish or defund the two. There has been enough support for a long time to keep them alive. The real issue is whether there will be additional cuts to their annual budgets, which are at a low level now.”

Mr. Katz said it is likely that there will be additional cuts. “Then the question is, how does that come?,” he continued. “It could be an across-the-board percentage cut for all programs. Or as we had in the early 90s, selective cuts. The NEA at that time cut out all grants to individual artists and major institutions. There isn’t any specific agenda against either of the endowments right now. My guess is that it would be an across-the-board cut.”

Most arts organizations don’t count on the NEA for a significant portion of their budgets, Mr. Katz said. “The impact on the town of Princeton will probably be pretty marginal. I can’t think of any particular regular programming here that is dependent upon an annual grant from the NEA or NEH.”

That said, “It’s bad, morale-wise,” Mr. Katz added. “Emotionally and psychologically, it’s a blow. I don’t want to say it’s not a problem. But I think in general, the community of arts supporters have badly over estimated the extent upon which the arts are dependent on the NEA. The bulk of support for the arts comes from state and local funding, and that isn’t affected by this. Advocates will make it sound like a crippling blow, but it won’t be.”

The NEH provided funding for an endowed program in the humanities at Princeton Public Library. The library matched the grant, and the program is now managed by the Princeton Public Library Foundation, which distributes some of the funding each year for live, in-person programming, the Museum Pass program, and development of the collection, among other uses.

“It is really important and has benefited Princeton directly, as well as public libraries in general,” says the library’s director Brett Bonfield. Humanities fellow Hannah Schmidle and public programming librarian Janie Hermann work with other libraries as part of the initiative. “It was a pilot program,” Mr. Bonfield said. “The idea was to demonstrate the value of the humanities within a public library context. It would be a huge loss for the State of New Jersey, and our community, if people didn’t have access to these kinds of programs and services.”

Mr. Bonfield also serves on the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, as does Mr. Katz, a longtime board member and its former president. The overwhelming majority of the funding for the Council comes through the NEH. “Roughly half of the funding of the NEH goes to Federal support, and the other half goes to the states,” Mr. Bonfield explained. “Each state gets a certain portion of that Federal funding. New Jersey gets about $800,000 a year and we’re able to distribute that to non-profits in New Jersey that serve the entire state. That has really enabled the state’s cultural institutions to fulfill their missions in important ways.

“For not a tremendous amount of money, the value we’re able to provide is really high. And for a lot of the non-profits that benefit from the funding, it would be hard on them to be as successful without it. Nobody really depends on us to keep the lights on, but $10,000 here and $20,000 there really goes far.”

Having peaked in the mid-1970s, Federal arts and humanities funding has been going down ever since. While there have been serious cuts over the past few decades, the budgets of the NEA and NEH have survived.

“We have been threatened in the past and fought back and prevailed,” Ms. Mann said. “I don’t know if we will prevail this time or not, but we have to organize and let them know how essential the NEA, NEH, and public broadcasting are. Both art and journalism are at stake. We don’t want to come back to when it has to be about the rich patron only. If we have to, we have to, but that’s not healthy and it could mean the downfall of many institutions. No matter who you voted for, this is alarming for the health of our society.”