Part of the argument against shuttering the arts endowment has always rested on the fact that culture is an economic engine and that, as federal agencies go, the N.E.A. is hardly an expensive one. Its $167.5 million budget for 2021 is still no more than what one city, New York, spends on its cultural affairs. The number has grown by about $17 million since 2017, but it’s still absolutely dwarfed by the cultural budgets in European countries where financial support for the arts is viewed as a government function. For example, Britain’s culture ministry has annually spent more than $1 billion on the arts for years.
Nevertheless, to many in the world of culture, the endowment’s value as a symbol cannot be underestimated. Created in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation declaring that the arts and humanities belong to all people, the endowment was founded on the belief that the arts have a role in the spiritual and economic health of the nation, and deserve government underpinning.
Its individual grants are relatively small in a cultural industry that predominantly relies, not on government support, but ticketing and private donations for funding. Nevertheless, defenders of the agency see the federal government’s role in backing the arts, in awarding coveted honors and issuing grants, as sustaining, and smaller organizations, whose ability to tap major donors for help is limited, often view financial help of any size as essential.
But the endowment has long been in the cross hairs of Republicans as a symbol of wasteful liberal largess. When President Trump took power, experts feared he was restarting a cultural war that his successor Joe Biden participated in three decades ago. The first Trump budget, and each succeeding one, proposed eliminating funding for the arts agency, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports public television and radio outlets around the country.
This was reminiscent of the fight in the 1990s when conservatives argued that the agency served a narrow audience, ignored Middle America, pushed a leftist, elitist agenda and funded projects that were insulting, silly or even obscene. Grants, for example, to Karen Finley, a provocative performance artist who smeared chocolate and yams over her naked body, outraged some conservative members of Congress.