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The Arts-Are-Good-For-The-Economy Arguments Have Failed – They’ve Even Helped Kill The NEA, Argues Arts Exec

Jan 31, 2017

(Credit: shutterstock/Getty/Mireia Triguero Roura)

I spent more than a decade working for an organization that defended the National Endowment for the Arts. Every year, like clockwork, some Republican would magically balance the federal budget by gutting two agencies (the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities, or NEH) that account for one one-hundredth of one percent (.0001) of federal spending. For reference’s sake, our government spends roughly as much on paper clips and copy paper as it does on all of the nation’s theaters, museums and libraries combined.

I can provide that little factoid because I used to write little opinion pieces whenever efforts came up to eliminate these agencies. I’d help get a lobbyist involved, draft a response, activate tens of thousands of members to write and call their elected officials — the whole big show. Somehow (and it had nothing to do with our efforts) the agencies would survive.

But this is not like those other times. Today, the agencies are in real danger. Long a target of conservatives, there is nothing — and I mean nothing — preventing Republicans from finally achieving their decades-long goal. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump all want them gone. Democratic legislators traditionally sympathetic to the agencies will be too busy trying to preserve little things like Medicare, Social Security and the very concept of public education. Even if the agencies do survive the coming Trump budget, they will be a shadow of their former selves — and they are already a shadow of their former selves.

As cultural leaders, we must face the fact that the NEA and the NEH as we have known them are likely to be completely dismantled in the next 24 months. We must also accept our culpability in the great dismantling, and recognize the critical opportunity before us.

When George W. Bush was elected, Dana Gioia — a critic, poet and pioneer in the marketing of processed foods — was appointed to lead the National Endowment for the Arts. Under Gioia and Bush, funding for the NEA and NEH actually increased, and for a time, arts leaders began to believe that “only Nixon could go to China.” As a marketing executive and conservative poet (a rare bird indeed) Gioia adeptly pursued a shrewd political course — making sure federal funds were strategically distributed to the right congressional districts, building private partnerships with concerned corporate citizens like Boeing, and launching splashy, uncontroversial initiatives like Operation Homecoming, the Big Read and Jazz Masters.   Following a broader trend in institutional philanthropy, the NEA began to emphasize metrics, deliverables, sustainability and the like, and the agency’s tag line reflected this new thinking. The slogan went from “Art for Art’s Sake” to “ArtWorks.”