Since President Lyndon Johnson and a bipartisan Congress created the national arts and humanities endowments, no president has called for their elimination — until now. We should pause and think about what our country would be like in their absence.
In 1965, Douglas Turner Ward, a Southern-born, Northern-educated playwright, produced a satirical story of a town that wakes up to learn its black residents have disappeared. In “Day of Absence,” the white townspeople — played, in pre-“Hamilton” cleverness, by black actors — come to terms with their segregated world. There are suddenly no blacks to labor or clean; no blacks to be hated and used to establish one’s importance.
That same year, the U.S. established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, federal agencies designed to strengthen the possibility that scholars, artists, museums and other cultural caregivers could innovatively examine the world we share. For five decades, both endowments have done just that: served the interests of the nation. Even throughout the disagreement surrounding the funding of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and the “NEA Four” in 1989-90, our leaders, in a bipartisan fashion, recognized that the arts and humanities foster “mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of persons and groups,” as the establishing act promised, and are thus “vital to democracy” and an “essential” recipient of federal support.
Today, President Donald Trump has put those investments and their democratic contributions at risk, with a budget proposal that terminates them, forever.
The value of the NEA and the NEH to the nation’s affairs can be measured in innumerable ways. Their grants, fellowships and awards, to writers, museums, artists, communities and teachers have empowered two generations of ideas that might otherwise have never come to light, be they from red states or blue.
Take the town of Whitesburg, Ky. The NEA and NEH funded a program by Appalshop that preserves the film, tapes and photographs needed to tell the story of the region’s history and culture. But for the NEA and NEH’s investments and the validation that those investments provided, philanthropies like the Mellon Foundation would have been less likely to lend private support to the project. The eastern Kentucky community doesn’t have much wealth or many potential private donors — but that doesn’t make its history any less critical to capture than New York’s or Boston’s. The program not only promotes civic pride, but also gives young people training and work in an economy still finding its footing as its coal-mining foundation fades.
The NEH also underwrote a program to broaden our understanding of returning veterans in states like Alabama and Maine, and supports a program in Arizona that exclusively explores the role of American women in our military. Shortly after the Vietnam War, the NEA helped initiate the competition that would select Maya Lin’s iconic design of a black granite memorial wall in our nation’s capital. It’s hard to imagine what that monument would be today without the NEA’s support.
Without an NEA grant, the world-famous Spoleto Festival might never have reached South Carolina, and Garrison Keillor has said “A Prairie Home Companion,” the radio program he made into a cultural treasure, might never have touched hearts outside of his local audience.
Some years ago, the NEA, in partnership with private philanthropy, created ArtPlace, which in turn partnered with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco to study how creative places produce economically vibrant, dynamic communities. “This work is concrete and measurable,” wrote Laura Callanan, a visiting scholar at the Fed, “and, increasingly, mayors, investors and philanthropists are partners to these efforts.” Those partnerships are critical to the story of these agencies’ value; leveraging funding has helped grow a nonprofit arts industry from 7,000 small arts businesses in 1965 to 100,000 today.
The taxpayer burden is incredibly small: The NEA and the NEH make up 0.008 percent of the federal budget. But eliminating them would carry a hefty cost.
Contemplate for a moment these programs’ absence. It is a nation without humanities programs in public libraries, without support for award-winning documentaries like Ken Burns’s “The Civil War.” It is a world in which the papers and archives of leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln remain hidden or lost. A world in which we fail to support those who examine what it means to be human through prose, poetry, narrative and analysis.
Some will argue for shifting the burden to the states. States certainly have a role to play, but block grants will not support a new documentary that is national in focus or critical to fostering our understanding of the world. States won’t assemble peer-review panels to assess scholarly research or vet future researchers. States are not equipped to suggest new collaborations because they won’t see, as the NEH can, the synergies between two proposals. Others will say private philanthropy should take over. But this is not a job that the private sector can or should shoulder alone.
At the height of the space race and the major scientific investments it required, our nation nevertheless inaugurated the national arts and humanities endowments because, as the act says, “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” It goes on to say we must support “access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”
We need that wisdom today more than ever. For such a modest sum that pays itself back in multiples, we would be foolish to deprive ourselves and our successors of the cultural understanding central to our complex but shared national identity. We cannot afford a decade or even day of its absence.