A Lens on Trump’s Proposed Budget: Killing the Arts

“A Lens on Trump’s Proposed Budget” is a series of articles highlighting the potential impacts of President Donald Trump’s 2018 proposed budget.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

“A Lens on Trump’s Proposed Budget” is a series of articles highlighting the potential impacts of President Donald Trump’s 2018 proposed budget entitled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” The purpose of the series is to provide quantitative and qualitative facts as the proposed budget enters into the budget approval process with Congress.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) might not be a household name, but since 1965, the independent federal agency has provided more than $5 billion to arts initiatives that impact all 50 states. That means that anyone who has purposely (a museum visit) or casually (a public art display on a street corner) consumed art in any form in the U.S. for the past 52 years has likely stumbled upon something the NEA had a hand in funding or supporting.

The agency is currently allotted $148 million, which is a small fraction of the overall one trillion dollar discretionary spending budget. President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget, however, rolls the NEA and several other agency allocations down to zero in favor of bolstering other programs. The Department of Defense gets the biggest boost in Trump’s proposed budget with an increase of $52 billion — bringing that department’s total funding to $639 billion. That is more than half of the overall discretionary spending budget.

Another notable item is the $2.6 billion allocated to Homeland Security for the design and construction of a wall along the U.S./Mexico border. Previously, Trump vowed that the wall would be paid for by Mexico. (Former Mexico President Vicente Fox Quesada begged to differ on Twitter.)

The relatively minuscule NEA funds do not add much to the hefty coffers of the Defense Department and Homeland Security budgets, but the loss of that money could have significant impacts on artists, organizations, and art consumers.

NEA chairperson Jane Chu issued a statement lamenting the proposed cuts. “The President’s FY 2018 budget blueprint proposes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. 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,” Chu said.

“As a federal government agency, the NEA cannot engage in advocacy, either directly or indirectly. We will, however, continue our practice of educating about the NEA’s vital role in serving our nation’s communities.”

Author and Rutgers-Newark University creative writing professor Tayari Jones attests to the life-changing power of the NEA. A small grant in her early writing days allowed her to take advantage of a writing residency in Europe (her first trip abroad), and later, as a more established writer, the NEA provided her with a larger platform to share her work.

“The NEA is invisible but everywhere. They give grants to individual artists, but they also support many local initiatives. Look on any literary event flyer and you are likely to see the NEA logo. State arts grants funded by the NEA that give artists a couple hundred dollars here and there are important,” notes Jones, whose novel, Silver Sparrow, has been added to the NEA Big Read list.

“When I was a new writer, those small amounts of money allowed me to do the professional development to learn how to be a writer. Today, the NEA has put my book and books by several other authors in the hands of diverse swaths of people, many of whom are just being introduced to literature. The NEA supports writers and readers in all stages.”

Tyehimba Jess, poet and College of Staten Island professor, also exhorts the importance of the NEA in artists’ lives. “Back in 2004, things were going well for me on a professional level. I had just gotten my MFA, I had a book accepted for publication, and I received a fellowship to the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. The only issue was that I was flat broke. After the fellowship ended, I was in-between jobs and I didn’t have any immediate job prospects. When I applied for and received the NEA grant, it was right on time,” says Jess, author of Leadbelly.

“That was the first major grant or award that I ever received. That money was a bridge to the time when I could get a regular paycheck and it allowed me to think beyond the bare necessities. The NEA is kind of like a government seal of approval. It says ‘This country believes in you, wants to invest in you and it believes in the story you’re trying to tell.’”

The NEA is not just for authors. The federal agency supports numerous types of art — as evidenced by model, dancer, and philanthropist Damaris Lewis. “Without proper funding of the NEA, the elite minds of the artistic world will have a smaller margin than they already have to continue influencing and fueling the next generation and promoting one of the most beautiful parts of the human existence — expression from the roots of creativity,” says Lewis, a Boys and Girls Hall of Fame inductee.

“We need as many teachers, students, and dollars that we can get in order to pass down the knowledge of the great artists who have come before us.”

As President Trump’s proposed budget winds through the laborious budget approval process in Congress, Jess reminds everyone why the U.S. needs the arts. “To eliminate the NEA is to surrender to the idea that our nation’s art is of no value, that its citizenry are not worth the small investment the NEA represents in our national budget. We can’t afford to deny our multi-tongued, multi-hued, many-faithed populace the life buoy of the NEA. We cannot afford to surrender to the storm.”

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.