It was all over the social media: President Donald Trump is going to trash the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I know, I know, everyone has said that for years. Even though the official U.S. agencies to promote the arts and the humanities only get tens-thousandths of a percent of the U.S. budget ($148m last year), they are regularly attacked – but now the threat looking less rhetorical and more existential. The source, however, seems to be a single story in The Hill that’s been repeated everywhere.
“The NEA is very efficiently run nowadays,” he said. “The staff is small. Most of the money goes out the door” – that is, to individuals and groups in the arts. “The NEA does not subsidize the American arts. It doesn’t have enough money to subsidize anybody.” Rather, it serves as a catalyst for local groups in communities, and the imprimatur of the NEA means that an individual or group can be more successful in raising its own funding in the future.
Nor are the awards made only to coastal elites. He pointed out the NEA’s Shakespeare program, which brings professional-caliber Shakespeare to places that don’t have professional theater companies. It’s visited 4,000 towns – and these are small towns, for the most part.
What would he say to President Trump? “The presence of art in schools and the presence of art in communities makes them more economically viable. They become places that are desirable to live in, desirable to locate businesses in, desirable to invest in. This is probably one of the cheapest economic development programs that the United States has. That’s my Trumpean argument. It’s not the argument I would make to a cultural person.”
“When you do something positive, it tends to be positive in many ways,” he continued. He pointed out that Charleston forty years ago was a dying community. The mayor talked to a gay, Italian-American opera composer, Gian Carlo Menotti. The Spoleto Festival USA was born. “It tranformed Charleston into the most attractive city in the American South,” with galleries, restaurants, and huge local employment, he said.
“Donald Trump does not create the budget – he can suggest a budget, but Congress does.” He recommended that everyone write to his or her representative in Congress, a short, two- or three-sentence letter: “As a constituent, I am concerned about protecting budget of NEA.”
“I guarantee you that any member of the House who gets 500 individual letters on an issue will begin to change his or her mind. They will act on it,” he said. “We need American culture to win the battles. We will win this battle.”