Opinion

Ending Arts Funding Hurts All Americans, Rich and Poor Alike

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A visitor at the Detroit Institute of Arts museum looks at the mural by Diego Rivera in Detroit, Michigan June 2, 2013. The Detroit art museum, along with dozens of other art museums, is a recipient of grants from the National Endowment of the Arts. Ravi S. Rajan writes that 55 percent of U.S. residents were in favor of doubling the operating budget of the NEA. Yet the White House seems intent on ignoring the majority of Americans. Eliminating the NEA would destroy artistic institutions nationwide and put tens of thousands of other art-based programs at risk. Rebecca Cook/reuters

Behind the bluster and controversy of the new administration, a powerful but often overlooked element of a healthy democracy is now at stake.

The administration’s proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities, despite the fact that they make up a miniscule piece of our nation’s budget, would eviscerate arts and humanities programs whose value far outweighs their cost.  

Cutting government support to the arts and humanities would ring false to public opinion and provide limited financial gain.

The proposed cuts have little to do with saving money, and much to do with appeasing a far-right minority by diminishing the artistic institutions that enrich our communities. The NEA received $148 million last year — four one-thousandths of one per cent (0.004 percent) of the federal budget – yet these cuts have long been desired by certain conservatives out to make a symbolic point in the guise of financial prudence.

The NEA plays a critical role in our culture and future. NEA grants happen in every state and every district, aiding local arts organizations both affluent and poor, rural and urban, red and blue. These grants go to a wide variety of programming—museum exhibitions, arts programs for veterans, youth poetry events. 

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And each dollar awarded by the NEA requires a matching donation from other donors, meaning that NEA awards provide exponential benefit, giving Americans even more new and invigorating ways to see themselves and the world.

The elimination of these programs is at odds with the wishes of a national majority. A 2016 survey by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts found that 55 percent of U.S. residents were in favor of doubling the operating budget of the NEA. Yet the White House seems intent on ignoring the majority of Americans.  

Does the president really oppose art therapy for wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center?

Is he against a teen art program in the Bronx that gives young people a constructive way to find their voice?  

Would he abort The Lullaby Project, which pairs musicians with expectant mothers in difficult circumstances?

Let us hope not. But eliminating the NEA would destroy artistic institutions nationwide and put tens of thousands of other art-based programs at risk. Thousands of life-changing programs will lose their platform, and thousands more employees will lose their jobs.

The arts are both a historical record and a way to engage the next generation; a way to mirror the actions and events of our society through those who experience and are affected by them, especially the most vulnerable and disenfranchised; a way to give voice to anyone with a desire and something to say.  

Cultural expression is a global conversation. It is through this discourse that we create understanding between disparate ideas and views, that we unite across divergent cultures, and that we come together for common good, both at home and abroad.

The artist is the thumb on the hand of society, the opposable part which speaks truth to power, and which gives the hand the strength to grasp. Thus, perhaps most dangerously for the current administration, the arts create effective channels for opposition, dissent, and resistance.

I assure you, even without a National Endowment for the Arts, artists will persevere. But a government of the people, by the people, for the people should support cultural production – something that benefits us all.

If this President is too tone-deaf to realize that, then he is indeed willing to hack off his thumb to spite his hand.

Ravi S. Rajan is the incoming president of California Institute of the Arts.