Finding common ground on the National Endowment for the Arts
Posted March 29
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, which has predictably sparked a great deal of outrage among the arts community. The arts community insists that the actual savings produced by wiping out the arts funding would be negligible. They point out that the government is slated to spend more for transportation and Secret Service protection for Melania and Barron Trump than the NEA, and they could save that money if the first lady and her son would simply move into the White House.
Supporters of President Trump’s proposal respond by saying that the NEA is simply welfare for the rich and, despite the good that it may do, it is not something the government ought to be spending money on.
Both sides have a point, but they're talking past each other. Let me see if I can offer some common ground here.
I have twice served on the musical theater panel for the NEA, and I considered it a tremendous honor. It was my job, along with about a dozen or so others, to review every grant application to the NEA in the area of musical theater. The panel would then gather and discuss the applications to determine which arts organizations were most deserving of NEA funding.
The first year, they flew the panelists back to Washington, D.C., to meet in person at the old Washington Post Office, which, ironically, is now the site of President Trump’s new Washington hotel. The second year I participated, they decided to save money by scrapping a live meeting in favor of a conference call.
I have been sworn to secrecy as to the identity of the groups who applied, which is just as well, as I can’t remember any of them specifically. I do recall one application from a particularly impressive theater with a stellar reputation and a track record of outstanding productions. Yet they had a multimillion-dollar budget and a large donor base with a great deal of existing financial support, and I suggested that maybe the NEA ought to give a grant to a different organization that actually needed the money. The head of the panel then called attention to something I hadn’t considered before.
"The NEA doesn’t offer grants on the basis of need,” he said. “Instead, we give grants to the kind of art we want to be associated with.”
It dawned on me that this was the real value of the NEA — not the actual money it provided, but the prestige it bestowed. The money is paltry. Sure, $5,000 or $10,000 grants are better than nothing at all, but they’re a small portion of the budgets for many of these groups. What’s better is that now these organizations can go to other donors armed with the cachet of an NEA grant, which gives them the credibility they need to raise big money.
That’s critical, as major arts organizations simply cannot survive on the basis of ticket sales alone. Fundraising is the lifeblood of these groups, and the NEA’s blessing goes a long way toward helping a theater attract donors and patrons.
If Trump were to eliminate the NEA — and I doubt he will succeed in doing so, but that’s another story — the arts in this country won’t wither and die, especially if a private endowment could pick up where the NEA left off. There are foundations and universities with endowments far larger than the NEA, and like-minded donors could create a viable substitute that could still bestow the necessary prestige in absence of the federal dollars. Certainly it’s an idea that's worth a conference call or two.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.