January 25, 2017

What cuts at the NEA, NEH, and CPB will mean for humanities, journalism, and arts in America


Trump is threatening to cut funding to arts organizations, a move that would only microscopically affect the federal budget.

It’s virtually impossible to keep up with all of the destructive decisions coming out of the six-day-old Trump administration. It truly is a parade of horrors. But, that doesn’t mean we should, or can, stop paying attention. One that is in danger of getting buried in the avalanche is Trump’s desire to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

The Hill reported on it last week, breaking the story that, in the proposed budget, the “Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.” So what do we stand to lose with the cuts?

The NEA, established in 1965, “gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.” For music alone, Marc Hogan at Pitchfork writes, they’re invaluable:

Historically, the agency has awarded thousands of grants for orchestras, jazz, operas, chamber music, and beyond. And just looking back through the past year or so, the array of specific programs affected by the endowment is dizzying. If you saw a video last year of David Bowie talking about working with Lou Reed, that was part of an NEA-funded digital archive. An Esperanza Spalding performance at Manhattan’s Baryshnikov Arts Center, a Steve Reich 80th-birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall, and a Quincy Jones tribute at the Monterey Jazz Festival are among endowment-boosted events from 2016.

The desire to defund the NEA isn’t new to Republicans, and it’s not new to Trump, as ArtNews reports:

Over the years, Trump has been unsupportive of the NEA. In 1999, when Chris Ofili’s controversial painting The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), which features the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung, was on view at the Brooklyn Museum, Trump, like many conservatives, lashed out against the NEA, despite the fact that the organization had had nothing to do with the show.


Because, as they correctly say, “democracy demands wisdom,” the NEH also focuses on the civic and educational enrichment of the country. Per the Huffington Post, the NEH

funds programs in areas that include education for school teachers and college faculty, preservation to maintain critical collections of our common American heritage, and public programs that reach large audiences, often through the media. Additionally, the agency funds research of literary and historical significance, challenge grants to improve humanities funding nationally, and work in the digital humanities to link new technology to the humanities.

They also help fund library programs, support the writing of award-winning books, and more. They lay out a few of their accomplishments on the website.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is “the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting and the largest single source of funding for public radio, television, and related online and mobile services.” Maybe you’ve heard of NPR or PBS.

The money that gets alloted to these groups is a drop in the giant bucket that is the annual US budget.  Philip Bump broke it down at the Washington Post:

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting received $445 million in 2016. (It gets additional funding from donors like you.) NEA got $148 million. NEH requested the same. The Congressional Budget Office figures that about $3.9 trillion was spent by the government during the fiscal year.

Sounds like a lot, but…

If you were at Thanksgiving and demanded a slice of pecan pie proportionate to 2016 NEA spending relative to the federal budget, you’d end up with a piece of pie that would need to be sliced off with a finely-tuned laser. Put another way, if you make $50,000 a year, spending the equivalent of what the government spends on these three programs would be like spending less than $10.

As Dr. Brian C. Mitchell writes, not at all hyperbolically, really, at the Huffington Post, these cuts “should alarm every American who has ever used a library, visited a museum, attended a college or university, watched public television, or listened to a public radio station.” In the words of Pitchfork’s Hogan:

Tell Trump if he wants back those couple of quarters each taxpayer contributes each year to arts funding, he can pry it from our hands, which are very much alive, not noticeably tiny, and often warm from clapping at shows. Or better yet, convince him to let artists keep the pittance of support the government currently grants them.



Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.