Kill the NEA? What it might mean

The new administration wants to kill federal arts and cultural funding. That would squeeze every corner of the country, including Oregon.

One thing about the new administration: It’s moving at lightning speed. And it’s doing pretty much what the new president said it would. So while all the firings and hirings and executive orders and pipeline reboots and refugee get-the-boots swirl around us, it makes sense to believe that the administration wasn’t kidding when it targeted the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and federal backing of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the garbage dump. Expect the effort to begin soon, while the administration still has its congressional party votes mostly in line. And expect potential allies in Congress to be engaged in other, bigger fights.

Which is not to say the shutdowns are a done deal. Down-in-the-trenches activism matters. There’s always the chance that these relatively small targets will get lost in the shuffle. And there’s always the chance that the effort to kill them will be weak, while the administration aims most of its firepower at bigger issues, and enough congressional Republicans will see casting a vote to protect a couple of small-potatoes programs as a handy way to show they are independent. On the other hand, these national cultural programs have long been targets of the Republican right, which could see this as its best moment to just get rid of them.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 production of Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” with actor Jeena Yi, was funded partly by the National Endowment for the Arts. Photo: Jenny Graham

So it’s prudent to start to think about what life without the NEA and NEH might be like. (Most of the CPB’s budget is already independent, and it could probably make up most of what it stands to lose from private donors.) The New York Times’s Graham Bowley has a good rundown on the federal picture in his piece What If Trump Really Does End Money for the Arts? And Bob Keefer of Eugene Weekly takes a look at possible consequences in Oregon in his piece Trump Endangers NEA Funding for Local Arts. (Oregon Arts Commission leaders were meeting Thursday to decide what to say publicly and how to say it.)

Much of the nation’s cultural funding apparatus begins at the federal level, and shutting down the endowments would create a major headache for cultural funding at the state and local levels, too, including many programs that reach into poor and sparsely populated areas of the country. The NEA and NEH budgets are very small – just $148 million annually for each, or 0.003 percent of the federal budget – but a remarkable amount of that money goes directly to the states in the form of their state arts or humanities councils, which then pass it along to regional and local organizations such as the Portland greater urban area’s Regional Arts & Culture Council or directly to projects around the state.

In the current fiscal year Oregon’s direct cut from the NEA is $727,700, a hefty chunk of the Oregon Arts Commission’s roughly $3.5 million a year (it is funded biennially, with a budget of a bit over $7 million for 2017-19). NEA grant money is also awarded directly to projects in the state, an influx that in a single grant cycle in 2015 included more than $300,000 on top of the annual grant to the OAC, for projects ranging from folklore research in eastern Oregon to a Northwest Indian Storytelling Festival to the Right Brain Initiative, which helps plug the gap in arts programs in metropolitan area schools.

Oregon’s voluntary taxpayer program the Oregon Cultural Trust, which reaches into every geographical region of the state, would shield the state somewhat from the effects of a federal shutdown but not entirely. Financially, not every state gets back from the NEA and NEH what it contributes in taxes paid. But the agencies do tend to spread their money everywhere, and that would stop: culturally speaking, the rich would become richer (or suffer smaller losses), the poor would get poorer.

Government grants rarely cover big percentages of a cultural group’s budget, and shutting off the federal financial spigot would not kill off large organizations such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Oregon Symphony, the Portland Art Museum, and Portland Opera. But they would take a hit from the loss of direct grants, and also from increased competition for foundation and private funding sources that would be squeezed to pick up the federal slack. And that would carry the potential of starting a downward spiral across the cultural board.

Taken in the extreme, the loss or impoverishment of the nonprofit world in arts and culture would mean that art would become largely popular or populist (what we ordinarily think of as “entertainment,” though the line between art and entertainment is often fuzzy), and dominated by the bottom line: art as filtered through the profit motive of the business world. Hollywood. Pop music. Advertising. Sales would become the ultimate measure of worth. This isn’t entirely bad, of course. Fine movies get released amid the blockbusters, and popular music can move smartly and creatively with the culture. But while there is a vital intersection between popular and serious art, they aren’t the same thing, and the crippling of deep art, both traditional and exploratory, would be a crippling of the culture: the triumph of the marketplace over the mind.

In the meantime, Oregon faces another serious funding problem that could have a sizable impact on cultural groups: a projected $1.8 billion shortfall in the state budget. The Legislature is in session and will have to come up with some drastic cuts. “Arts and culture budgets may be at risk, not because legislators are against us – but because the budget must balance,” Christine Drazan, executive director of the Cultural Advocacy Coalition, wrote in a funding and action plea sent out Wednesday. The last time something this severe happened to the state budget, in 2009, the Legislature raided $1.8 million from the Oregon Cultural Trust – money that individual citizens had specifically chosen to direct to the trust.

Defunding of the NEA and NEH would be a radical rollback, with radical longterm effects. It’s worth noting that as much as the president expresses disdain for the celebrity culture that brought him to prominence, one result of a radicalized government’s eagerness to privatize the world would be to boost the importance of the movie, television, and pop-music culture that already dominates the nation’s cultural conversation.

But for all the political hay that killing the cultural endowments would create, government’s most vital role in supporting the arts is probably the tax breaks provided by 501(c)3 nonprofit status, a category similar to the tax exemptions that religious organizations and political interest groups get. There has been no whisper that the new government has plans to go after nonprofit tax advantages: indeed, the president has announced his intention to strip from the tax codes any prohibitions against religious groups’ open political activity. But if the administration decides to target cultural nonprofit tax breaks, fasten your seatbelts: the potholes are going to be deep, and the ride will be rough.




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