Trump Budget Threatens Funding Elimination for Arts and Cultural Agencies

A protester challenges budget cuts to the NEA. // Photo Credit: Craig Watson, americansforthearts.org.

A protester challenges budget cuts to the NEA. // Photo Credit: Craig Watson, americansforthearts.org.

On March 16, the Trump administration released their 2018 budget proposal, a plan which includes a $54 billion increase in defense spending, $2.6 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and major spending cuts to other federal agencies and departments. Among other significant aspects of the budget proposal is the complete elimination of federal funding for four arts and cultural agencies: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Under the current budget, these agencies receive a total of $971 million in funding from the federal government. If Congress votes to institute Trump’s plan, they will receive $0.

This proposal to cease funding American artistic and cultural programs is not exactly surprising coming from a man who fast-forwards through the dialogue in films and who, according to both the New York Times and the Washington Post, “does not read books.” However, the proposition is significant in that it represents the breaking of a promise on the part of President Trump.

By cutting these programs, Trump will not significantly save money. He will not decrease the budget deficit. He will not just hurt the so-called “liberal elites” to whom conservatives claim programs like NPR and PBS cater. If Trump’s budget proposal is put into law, he will hurt the rural and impoverished communities that elected him, the very same people who, in his inaugural address just over two months ago, he promised would be “forgotten no more.”

Take, for example, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Contrary to what one might assume, PBS derives less than 7% of its funding from the CPB. For NPR, that number is less than 1%. In fact, over 90% of the CPB’s funding, which was $445 million for the 2017 fiscal year, goes to local stations. In a statement issued by the CPB, the Corporation stated, “the federal investment in public media is vital seed money — especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40-50% of their budget. The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect.” Furthermore, the CPB said, “public media reaches 68% of all kids age two to eight, providing educational media that’s proven to prepare kids for school, especially low-income and underserved children who do not attend pre-school.” By denying local stations public funding, Trump will be contributing to the unjust educational impoverishment of children of the low-income and rural Americans for whom he claimed he would improve life time and time again on the campaign trail.

Consider as well the National Endowment for the Arts, a program that was created as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. The funding that the NEA receives from the federal government – $148 million in 2017 – is disbursed by the agency in the form of grants to promote the fine arts throughout the United States. The NEA is so essential for advancing the arts that, in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Republican ex-governor and failed presidential candidate Mike Huckabee strongly urged for its preservation, advocating on behalf of “the kids in poverty for whom NEA programs may be their only chance to learn to play an instrument, test-drive their God-given creativity and develop a passion for those things that civilize and humanize us all.”

The great irony of Trump’s proposal to slash the budget of the NEA is that it not only improves life for impoverished children, but also for many of the voters who came out most strongly in support of Trump during the 2016 presidential election. For example, in 2016, the city of Whitesburg, Kentucky, located in a county where 80% of votes were cast for Donald Trump, received $10,000 in NEA grants for concerts, radio broadcasts, and instruction in traditional Appalachian music, promising that “instruments will be provided for those who are unable to afford them.” The same year, the city of Durant, in Bryan County, Oklahoma, where Trump received 76% of the vote, was given a grant of $50,000 by the NEA to create an arts district designed to “increase the economic vitality of the city and address workforce and education goals for the city’s underserved community.” Also in 2016, Lewisburg, a town in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, where 67% of votes were cast for Trump, was granted $10,000 by the NEA for performances, film screenings, and classes “celebrating the cultural history of Southern traditional music,” plus another $10,000 for marketing the program to audiences in the surrounding states.

Similarly, voters who elected Trump have also benefitted from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, another cultural agency whose budget (formerly $230 million) the president has proposed to eliminate completely. The IMLS provides grants and research opportunities to support museums and libraries throughout the country, including in rural and middle-American communities to which Trump promised to bring economic revitalization and an increased quality of life. In Florence, Alabama, where in 2004 71% of voters in the surrounding Lauderdale County chose Trump, the town received $2,325 from the IMLS to improve the Children’s Museum of the Shoals. In Tioga County, Pennsylvania where Trump won 74% of the vote, the IMLS gave a grant of $356,491 to update the library at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania in 2001. In 2016, Trump won the state of Iowa with 51% of the vote. In 2013, that state’s Department of Education was given a grant by the IMLS for $1.8 million.

Like the other arts and cultural agencies the current administration has threatened to eliminate, the National Endowment for the Humanities also caters to the communities that helped elect Donald Trump. The NEH’s “greatest hits” list includes its funding of the 1990 Ken Burns film, The Civil War – a documentary that’s become an enduring staple for history buffs and high-school classrooms alike – and its travelling exhibition of the late 1970s, “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” which was ultimately visited by over six million people in cities across the United States. More recently, the NEH has begun an innovative program called NEH on the Road. Developed by the Mid-America Arts Alliance, NEH on the Road offers travelling exhibitions intended to present high-quality information and artifacts in small-scale museum and community spaces. The program was specifically designed to target Americans who live in small towns or rural areas and might not otherwise have the opportunity to visit a museum.

There are other agencies and programs (Meals on Wheels, the McGovern-Dole program, the Legal Services Corporation) on Trump’s fiscal chopping block that, if eliminated, arguably would have far graver consequences than those of ending the CPB, NEA, NEH, or IMLS. However, our arts and cultural institutions matter, too — for reminding us where we came from, for allowing us to celebrate who we are, and for showing us where we can go. America, and particularly its rural and low-income communities, cannot stand to lose these institutions.

I grew up watching PBS; my local public radio station formed the de facto soundtrack to my childhood, playing in the background on long car trips, rides to school, and while my mom cooked in the evening. As a young child, trips to museums, no matter how small, were (and still are) joyous occasions, and making art and music was often the highlight of my school day. I cannot imagine a childhood without these bright spots of artistic and cultural education, and I cannot imagine the person I would be without them.

With this budget proposal, Trump is telling us that the arts don’t matter. That culture doesn’t matter. If you have a story like I do, join me in telling him – and our elected representatives, if they propose a vote on a budget that includes these cuts – that they are wrong.

Alexandra Kurland