Trump budget proposal an assault on arts and culture

by Sydney Sweeney, Senior Staff Columnist

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Donald Trump thinks arts and culture are trivial. At least that is what he is communicating to Americans. Last week his administration released a partial outline of the 2018 federal budget that threatens four independent cultural agencies — the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Each agency serves a distinct purpose rooted in the accessibility, research and preservation of its focus.

Some of these organizations risk eradication. At the top of Trump’s hit list is the only agency that our federal government has wholly dedicated to artistic excellence — the NEA. For decades, this program has been neglected and censured by Republican politicians and intolerant conservatives, yet the significance of the NEA outweighs that of saving a few federal bucks. If realized, the elimination of the agency is a misstep that can lead to national calamity, affecting citizens who don’t identify as artists.

It is no secret that the administration’s reason for ridding of the NEA relates to Trump’s obsession with disproportionately handing money to Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. This month the New York Times reported that these three agencies are the only ones to receive a budget increase for 2018 — predictably, defense has received the largest increase in dollars, spiking to $574 billion, roughly a 10 percent increase from last year — while all other departmental budgets have not only stagnated, but shrunken.

These proposed cuts would result in a 1.2 percent decrease in discretionary spending overall, but Trump’s careless thrift echoes unreasonable priorities, like scaling back on career training programs focused on assisting disadvantaged citizens — seniors, youth and the unemployed — while spending over $1.5 billion on the detention and removal of undocumented immigrants. With more than a half-trillion dollars at the disposal of the military, agencies like the NEA, with its modest $148 million budget, is hardly affecting the bigger picture. And if all those numbers are overwhelming, here’s a simpler way to say how much the federal government usually invests in cultural programs — virtually nothing.

From preschool to adulthood, Americans have been taught to believe that the U.S. is a furnace crackling with support for creative expression. Arts educators frequent classrooms to tell children about Claude Monet’s mastery, school field trips to the ballet are ritualistic and interactive courses like band and choir are offered to everyone. Best-selling musician Kenny G credits his Seattle elementary school with fostering his early love for the saxophone. American institutions, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., are recognized to be some of the world’s largest, most visited art museums. Many post-secondary curriculums require students to take advanced courses focusing on cultural explorations.

In isolation, this nation appears to be dedicated to artistic achievement. Yet, relative to other developed nations, the U.S. federal government’s arts-related devotion is historically illusive. NEA data from 2000 reported that the U.S. spent $6 per capita on the arts in 1995 as Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden spent seven to 15 times as much, despite smaller GDPs per capita. Nearly 10 years later, the Canada Council for the Arts — the Canadian equivalent to the NEA— highlighted the cheapskate behavior of the U.S., which issued just 33 cents per individual in grants. Such comparisons serve to counter the belief that the American government assumes a pioneer role in cultural contexts, and these statistics — spanning over two decades — prove that no amount of research has convinced the federal government that the arts are worth more than border walls and warships.

People who dismiss the importance of federally funded arts programs might say NEA supporters should feel lucky that the agency managed to make it this far — and that’s true. Both family groups and the regressive portion of the GOP, a sort of anti-cultural tag team, have previously targeted the agency.

Like Trump, Ronald Regan entered office with a plan to save money by doing away with a large chunk of the NEA. Conservative cronies Charlton Heston and Joseph Coors convinced him of the endowment’s value. And on multiple occasions, projects funded by the agency have been deemed offensive or distasteful — the best example of this criticism is the infamous “NEA Four,” a group of artists whose subjectively indecent, artistic merit-lacking performances were funded with federal grants to the dismay of some folks back in 1993. As the agency’s initialism has broken this year’s headlines under Trump’s recent proposal, right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation are digging up old lists on why the NEA should be defunded, while Fox News’ Tucker Carlson argues the organization is “welfare for rich, liberal elites.”

The endowment, meager budget and all, has been able to hold its ground. But this new administration is the first to legitimately propose the NEA’s elimination entirely, and it is unclear of whether the forever-turbulent, 52-year-old agency can withstand Trump’s new expenditure plans — especially if a Republican congress is on his side.

The NEA is a multifaceted lifeline that gives all Americans an opportunity to expose themselves to, and possibly pursue, the arts through both support and funding that artists, cultural organizations and schools would not otherwise have access to. Roughly a third of the endowment’s budget is sanctioned to state and regional partnerships that enable every community to engage in the arts, while each state is required to allocate a portion of its federal grant to strengthening arts education and assisting underserved populations in every congressional district. And half of NEA arts education grantees are located where the arts are most needed — high-poverty neighborhoods. People who advocate for the abolition of cultural organizations like the NEA should realize millions of American youth are dissimilar to Trump’s own children who grew up in conditions of metropolitan wealth and comfort.

The NEA has also directly gifted thousands to the SDSU Foundation year after year for the school’s Heartpower Performances program that underscores music’s role in positive change.

In a 2012 study, the agency found that young people of low socioeconomic status who engaged in the arts earned better grades and were more likely to enroll and stay in college compared to less arts-involved youth. But this doesn’t mean that at-risk children and teens are the only ones benefiting from federal arts funding. The Arts Education Partnership, a national network of organizations supported by both the NEA and the Department of Education, reported that high school students who experience arts-integrated curricula meet or significantly exceed state and district standardized test averages, regardless of student privilege.

It may be difficult for some young people to envision what the U.S. would be like without the NEA because its presence is so stealthily ubiquitous. Consider the surrounding arts and culture community — Balboa Park’s Old Globe Theatre and Museum of Photographic Arts, which received a total of $68,000 in federal grants last year, or the kids of the San Diego Youth Symphony that was given $40,000 to support expanded access to music education for public school students.

The threat to the NEA is anything but a distanced issue. Every dollar invested in the endowment is a dollar invested in the welfare of future generations.

Sydney Sweeney is a third-year journalism major minoring in creative editing and publishing. Find her on Twitter.

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