Making America “great” again does not apply to culture, philosophy, arts education, literature, or the preservation of the nation’s history, apparently. President Trump released a $1.1 trillion budget proposal on Thursday morning that realized some of the worst fears of artists, educators, and historians as it proposes completely defunding, among other agencies, the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities.
Both agencies were founded under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration in 1965. The NEA provides federal grants for projects "exhibiting artistic excellence" and promotes equal arts access, while the NEH provides funding for education, public programs, preservation and access, research, challenge grants, digital humanities, and more. As the NEH’s founding legislation asserts, “An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.”
The combined proposed budgets put out by both agencies total under $300 million, which is less than 0.01 percent of the total federal budget. As the Washington Post reports, Trump’s $54 billion increase in defense spending for 2018 alone could fund both the NEA and NEH for the next 183 years. The Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which provides funding to PBS, NPR, and other public radio and television) are also on the chopping block in Trump’s proposal.
NEA Chairwoman Jane Chu announced the news to staff on Wednesday, according to the New York Times, in an impromptu meeting in which she instructed them to conduct business as usual during the congressional budget-writing process. In a statement, Chu wrote that “we are disappointed because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every Congressional District in the nation.” And while as a federal agency the NEA is not allowed to participate in advocacy, Chu wrote that the NEA will “continue our practice of educating about the NEA’s vital role in serving our nation’s communities.”
NEH Chairman William D. Adams echoed that sentiment in his own statement: “We are greatly saddened to learn of this proposal for elimination, as NEH has made significant contributions to the public good over its 50-year history.” Adams went on to highlight some of the the projects funded by the agency, including preservation of history in Appalachian Kentucky and a theater project by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, perhaps intended as a pointed appeal to Republicans that their states and causes are also the recipients of endowment grants. As the New York Times points out, Karen Pence, wife of vice president Mike Pence, has made art therapy one of her causes, a profession that is partially dependent on NEA funding.
The NEH and NEA have supported everything from the Library of America to archeological excavations of Jamestown to the promotion of arts education in schools, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods.
Congress, not the president, is in charge of determining the federal budget, but Republicans are in an ideal position to defund the agencies if they so choose. If you have something to say about that, you can find your representative here.