A Conservative Case For Why Trump Should Fund the Arts

There’s no serious reason to take away small, local grants for schools, music, dance, and jazz festivals, not to mention programs for veterans and museum exhibitions.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

For decades, conservatives questioned the need for the government to financially support the arts and humanities. Now they may have the opportunity to put an end to what they believe are the unnecessary, even destructive cultural agencies set up in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). In calling for their complete elimination, the president is taking a radical step that only Ronald Reagan, of all our previous presidents, first favored.

When Reagan considered ending the arts endowment in 1981, the effort was halted by his friend Charlton Heston, also a Hollywood Democrat turned conservative. “The transition team really did want to de-fund it,” Marc Hogan reported in Pitchfork. As Barnabas Henry, head of the president’s special task force on the arts and humanities later told The New York Times: “... we put a lot of people on the task force like Charlton Heston and Adolph Coors who were close to the President, and we all thought the task force did finally persuade him that it would be a terrible thing to stop the federal support.”

In 1995, when Republicans again held the majority in Congress and again wanted to eliminate NEA and NEH, Heston testified before the House Appropriations subcommittee that “if you’re going to cut veterans’ affairs, and agriculture, and welfare, you’re sure enough going to cut the arts. But my position, which I think is the only position to have, is to leave the structure… in place with minimum funding.”

If a few Republicans oppose Trump’s plan, Heston’s suggestion two decades ago might become the fallback position since only Congress can repeal the legislation that created them. Already there are indications that several prominent lawmakers don’t want the agencies eliminated. Reporting in The New York Times, Katie Rogers points to Alaska Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose state has received $18 million in grants since 1995. The Senator has told the Times that “we can find a way to commit to fiscal responsibility while continuing to support the important benefits that N.E.A. and N.E.H. provide.” Joining her in that sentiment were Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia, and Rep. Mark Amodie of Los Vegas, and Rep. Carl Calvert of California, who noted that he recognizes that both agencies “have a lot of support from the American people and members of Congress.”

Likewise, Rep. Rodney Freylinghuysen of New Jersey, chairman of the House Appropriations committee, said that in “the overall scheme of things I think the arts programs” do not amount to much federal money spent, and that “I enjoy those programs as well as any other Americans,” and that “it’s money well spent.”

And on Thursday, former Governor Mike Huckabee penned an op-ed in The Washington Post, joining those who want NEA funded. An amateur electric bass guitar player himself, Huckabee argues that the NEA actually funds children living in poverty, and that children actually do better in school, and, especially in math and science, if they participate in the arts. Forty percent of NEA’s grants, he emphasized, go to high-poverty neighborhoods, even as the arts generate $135 billion annual in economic activity and support 4.1 million jobs. Finally, Huckabee notes that 40 percent of arts grants go to the states, whose arts leaders must obtain private funding matching what NEA offers. Huckabee wants waste to be cut and worthless programs ended, but, he concludes, “I’m not for cutting and killing the hope and help that come from creativity.”

The most recent strong arguments for eliminating the arts agencies were laid out by George Will—who argues that NEA funds are “regressive,” citing Paul Ryan who said, incorrectly, that the grants they give are “generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier”—and by David Marcus, artistic director of a Brooklyn, New York, theater project, who argues that arts organizations seek to please “those who dole out the free cash” rather than to produce works that attracts audiences.

In National Review, Kevin Williamson Thursday offered what I think is a very weak case for ending the NEA, acknowledging that ending the agency won’t save any significant federal money and arguing instead that “it is bad for art and bad for artists.” In his eyes, the agency spends its money “on the artsy and the art-ish,” a claim easily answered by looking at where its money actually goes. He puts down what he calls “educational initiatives” that he claims only touch art, music, and theater “tangentially,” a false argument answered effectively by Huckabee. He emphasizes the one area that is clearly one that should not be funded, so-called creative placemaking. But that misguided grant proves only that this particular effort should be canceled, and not the entire NEA.

Finally, the agency’s critics maintain that government assistance for the arts has no place in a free market society. The arts should sink or swim on their merits. If there is a strong audience, contributions and ticket sales will follow. If not, the U.S. government has no right to subsidize something that has collapsed on its own.

Mick Mulvaney, the Trump administration’s budget director, has explained he puts himself “in the shoes of that steelworker in Ohio,” or the “coal-mining family in West Virginia.” How could he go to these people, he says, “look them in the eye, and say, ‘Look. I want to take money from you and I want to give it to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.’”

The fact is that the arts agencies are garnering more support today than they enjoyed in the past. When they came under attack during the culture wars of the 1990s, NEA responded by ending grants to individuals, giving funds only to state art agencies. That requirement ended the valid objection that many Americans had when grants went to so-called avant-garde “art” like Andre Serrano’s notorious Piss Christ, a photograph that showed a crucifix plunged into a vat of Serrano’s urine.

Today the NEA gives grants to every Congressional district in the country. Advocates argue, that although the grants are small, they should be looked at as investments that have a multiplier effect given the requirement for recipients to raise matching funds from other donors. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ), co-chairman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, focuses on that when he lobbies his colleagues to continue supporting them, telling them that the agencies create jobs in tourism, restaurants, and hotels.

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Taking away theater in schools, music, dance, and jazz festivals as well as programs for veterans and museum exhibitions may rank below ending Meals on Wheels, but many citizens will view it as a loss for their communities. Looking at last year’s grant recipients at the NEA website, there was $10,000 given to help produce an opera in Anchorage, Alaska, based on the true story of the longest held American POW during the Vietnam War. Most grants are around $10,000 and only rarely does one find one of $40,000. A small grant, for example, was given to help fund the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which gives citizens of that state the chance to be exposed to classical music. I think few Americans would find any of these grants controversial.

NEH grants play a similar role. The agency gives grants to veterans including a warrior writers project in Missouri, where writers, journalists, authors, and others lead workshops in which vets learn to tell their own story of their combat experiences (PDF). They also run a program in which major historians, such as John L. Gaddis and Donald Kagan from Yale, teach seminars and prepare vets for returning to college.

The NEH also runs a program to reach rural communities, where teachers are taught how to run classes on rural history, and in which national exhibits are brought to small communities, such as a program on prohibition in America that was originally at the National Constitution Center (PDF). It also helps fund the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts, keeping in the public eye the work of one of our country’s most popular artists but one who was often condemned by the arts establishment. In Cody, Wyoming, it supports the Buffalo Bill Museum that helps Americans understand the Old West out of which Cody came.

The NEH also awards grants to scholars for research projects approved by boards of scholars from different universities and colleges, as well as appointing Public Scholars who lecture in their various fields. NEH also funds programs in which scholars teach high school teachers and bring them up to date on new work in their fields. An NEH summer grant to the James Madison program at Princeton University gave me the opportunity to teach New York City and New Jersey high school teachers about the latest scholarship on the Cold War and Communism, and how it challenged the widely popular “revisionist” history adopted by many on the political left.

Wouldn’t it better serve conservatives to continue funding both Endowments, instead of simply eliminating them—a step that would not impact the federal budget in any meaningful sense but would deprive communities of benefits that improve their lives?