Philadelphia and the National Endowment for the Arts

By: Jarek Ervin

Back in January, Donald Trump revealed a plan to craft a budget in standard Republican fashion: cut funding to dozens of programs that support working people, while increasing kickbacks to the rich and ramping up military spending. His proposal – released on March 16 under the clownish title “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” – made good on those threats.

Closely modeled on the agenda of a right wing think tank called the Heritage Foundation, the plan would decimate all manner of government institution. Curiously, dozens of small organizations dedicated to arts, education, and culture would be completely defunded by America First, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Trump’s plan would also eliminate all support for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Though tiny by standards of government spending –it cost the government about $148 million last year – the NEA has been the premiere public institution for arts funding since it was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. In the five decades since its formation, the group has offered over a hundred thousand grants to individuals and organizations. From the Martha Graham Dance Company to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the NEA has been a source of funding behind many of the most important figures in the arts world.

Beneficiaries of the NEA are not just wealthy New York arts institutions. Especially since the 1970s, the organization has gradually shifted its focus from large orchestras and celebrity photographers to community arts projects. The NEA currently funds K-12 arts programs in all fifty states, and it dedicates a significant amount of resources to those who would otherwise have difficulty accessing arts education. This past year, 40% of NEA-supported activities were in high-poverty neighborhoods, while a third of its funding went to low-income audiences. The NEA has often proved to be a last resort for those fighting to nurture creativity in a world that does not always encourage it.

Philadelphia would be significantly impacted by the elimination of the NEA. Organizations in the City have received $7.7 million from the NEA between 2012 and 2017 alone. Last year, 33 groups received a combined total of $800,000 in support. Area mainstays funded by the organization included the Settlement Music School, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the Philadelphia Orchestra (who is using the funds in collaboration with Temple University’s Music Therapy Department to create a music class for the Broad Street Ministry). Additional funding went to groups such as the Asians Arts Initiative, the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises, and Philadelphia Young Playwrights, a program that helps students – largely those in the School District of Philadelphia – to create their own plays. Funding was even given to support the restoration of the William Penn statue on top of City Hall.

Until this year, no president has ever seriously considered cutting the program – Richard Nixon actually doubled federal spending on the organization, while even a Reagan era defunding plan was quickly struck down. In an age when state and local governments are quick to slash arts programs (or, simply never bothered to provide them in first place), public support for culture is already limited. The end of the NEA would eliminate one of the few resources still available to arts groups, continuing to push culture into a marketplace that seldom reflects the values of working people.


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