The largest grant-maker to the arts in the United States, and our closest equivalent to a “Department of Culture”, is under attack using the guise of cost savings. The National Endowment of the Arts, which accounts for a minuscule .004% of the total federal budget has been placed on the new administration’s chopping block of spending cuts alongside the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Global Climate Change Initiative, and more than 60 other federal programs and agencies.
Created in 1965, the independent agency was first proposed by President John F. Kennedy. “Far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation,” Kennedy said of the arts, “it is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose — and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.” Later the National Endowment for the Arts was enacted into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who said, “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”
How does the NEA operate? And, if abolished, what will be the impact in our community and at WAM?
The NEA functions in interesting and clever ways with its minuscule budget in order to facilitate its goal of increasing participation in the arts. Most people are aware of grant givings but may be surprised to hear that thousands are given each year in every congressional district and require a match by donors for every dollar in order to maximize impact. In fact, each NEA dollar leverages nine dollars from other sources, a powerful multiplying effect resulting in $500 million in matching support in 2016.
65% percent of National Endowment for the Arts funds are distributed to small and medium size organizations that operate on slim budgets. Additionally, 40% of grants are distributed to high poverty areas. These are the communities that will be impacted the most.
Lesser known and equally important, the NEA works to provide federal indemnity for exhibition insurance costs. Premiums on insurance coverage for precious artworks included in exhibitions can be incredibly costly and usually exceeds an institution’s budget. Essentially, the NEA is able to back the display of these artworks with full credit and faith in the United States, greatly reducing insurance costs and making many exhibitions financially possible.
Diane Mullin, a Senior Curator at WAM, discussed multiple NEA grants the Weisman has received over the last several years with me. Currently, NEA funds are being used for a three-year WAM commissioned work by Beth Lipman in conversation with WAM’s robust Marsden Hartley collection. A consortium NEA grant was awarded in a collaboration with the nonprofit art organization Northern Lights MN to update the web artwork Ding an sich (1999) by Piotr Szyhalski by transforming it into an app. The most significant grant WAM has received from the NEA was awarded to support our 2008 exhibition and catalog Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power. WAM’s curatorial team is currently deciding which upcoming project will be the target of funding in the next round.
President Trump’s elimination proposal has been met with public outcry from both the right and the left. In the coming months, art advocates will make their voices heard to protect this vital funding. If you would like to add your voice, the American Alliance of Museums has an excellent resource for expressing your concern with senators and representatives that I implore you to take action with.
Caleb Vanden Boom is a third year student from Madison, WI in the Graphic Design program at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. He also interns at WAM as a communications and marketing intern and at local design firm Less Co.