In 2013, the National Endowment for the Arts and its neighbor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, may have assumed they had suffered their final indignity at the hands of Donald Trump.
The developer had secured a lease to build what would become the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.’s Old Post Office, a resplendent National Historic Site that housed the two agencies — which were forced to retreat to more banal digs.
That blow stung, but it was nothing compared to the news recently leaked from Trump’s budget shop: The president is reportedly considering the wholesale destruction of both departments (as well as “privatizing” the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).
The plan, still unsubstantiated after surfacing last week in The Hill, routinely appears on Republican wish lists after the GOP wins elections. Budget hawks have described the agencies as unwanted dependencies since their inception under Lyndon Johnson. During the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early ’90s, leaders of the Christian Right found powerful GOP allies in pushing against taxpayer sponsorship of projects that contained (and sometimes combined) sexual or religious themes, including Andres Serrano’s infamous Piss Christ and the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. Since then, Republican officials from Newt Gingrich to Mitt Romney have contemplated scrapping the endowments.
Perhaps because they function so well as political footballs, however, the role of the NEA and NEH in funding education programs around the country is less well-known — even as it has arguably become their most important investment.
In recent years, financially starved school districts districts have felt compelled to trim or even eliminate arts education. The Great Recession may have accelerated this trend, but according to a 2012 report from the Department of Education, the economic downturn followed a prolonged decline in funding for public school dance and theater programs (the proportion of elementary schools offering these subjects dropped from 20 percent to 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively). The study also detected a worrying “equity gap” in arts education between high- and low-income students.
NEA and NEH have stood in the breach for decades, helping to funnel hundreds of millions of federal dollars toward K-12 education programs over the past half-century. Though NEH doesn’t disaggregate its K-12 spending, NEA awarded $5.8 million in educational grants in 2016, along with $4.9 million in professional development for arts educators since 2006.
These figures wouldn’t buy much more than a bobblehead on the dashboard of a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, but for school administrators they translate into writing workshops, Shakespeare plays and student choirs. In districts pared to the bone by revenue reductions, the end of the federal endowments could cripple arts enrichment.
“Must we fight this battle again?” asked John Frohnmayer, the NEA chairman from 1989 to 1992. “Over the 35 or 40 years that I’ve been involved in the arts, I’ve probably fought it 15 times.”
As that battle’s most prominent political casualty, he finds it particularly wearying. A successful attorney from a prominent Oregon family (his brother Dave was the state’s attorney general and president of the University of Oregon), he was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to quell the turmoil over NEA funds that had gone to support a retrospective on Mapplethorpe. The show included explicit photos that led future Republican majority leader Dick Armey to dismiss it as “morally reprehensible trash.”
An adept manager with a passion for arts education, Frohnmayer nevertheless found himself caught between grant recipients decrying censorship and conservative critics who accused him of subsidizing pornography. With the 1992 Republican presidential primary ahead and Pat Buchanan lambasting NEA funding at every campaign stop, Bush asked for his resignation. (Trump, then a rival to Buchanan for the Reform Party presidential nomination in 2000, also fulminated against government funding for “absolutely gross, degenerate stuff.”)
Unbowed by the experience, Frohnmayer still marvels at the influence of arts programs on America’s long-term productive potential. “What the arts teach is innovation and the ability to combine things that are otherwise disparate. And that’s the stuff of genius — that’s where our next computer programmers and fashion designers and architects come from,” he said.
It’s also a rare source of creative enrichment in large swaths of the country that don’t benefit from nearby cities or cultural institutions, he argues. “Being able to have access to dance in a little town in Iowa, or access to a real, live poet somewhere in Mississippi, these are the things the endowments have made possible over the last 50 years. You cut that, and you do a disservice to the poorer sector of our schoolchildren,” he said.
That observation would come as no surprise to LaRae Thornton, a media specialist at Wayne County High School in Jesup, Ga. Last year, she received a grant to participate in the Great Stories Club, an NEH-funded literacy initiative that has reached thousands of at-risk learners.
Beginning last fall, 11 students from the school’s alternative program — those expelled from other schools or juggling adult commitments with their classes — began meeting to discuss challenging texts by M.K. Asante and Sherman Alexie provided free of charge by the Great Stories Club. They were shuttled on field trips to the county library and a Books-A-Million franchise; local hero Howard Wasdin (a Navy SEAL and best-selling author) appeared as a guest speaker.
Thornton describes the experiment as an unqualified success. “It was great. We met more often than we expected because the kids requested it,” she said. “We gave them a lot of ownership, and it helped to build self-esteem.”
Assistant Principal Shrone Blackwell, who helped administer the club, spoke of one student’s reaction to the rows of bookshelves at Books-A-Million. “He was so overcome just being there, and he didn’t know where to start. He’s a graduating senior in the 12th grade, 18 years old, and that was the first time he had ever been in a bookstore.”
Asked whether the school could have attempted a similar undertaking without federal funds, she said no. “Without the grant, we would not be able to have this. It’s not something we can sustain with our current budget.”
Jim Leach has pushed as hard as anyone to sustain institutional support for humanities programs like the Great Stories Club. As a 15-term Republican congressman from Iowa, he co-founded the Congressional Humanities Caucus, which now includes more than 70 members. After leaving the House, he was named NEH chairman by President Obama in 2009.
In that office he was able to sidestep the political tsuris that engulfed Frohnmayer’s NEA tenure, spearheading campaigns to promote understanding and cooperation between cultures. He expressed dismay at the prospect of Trump’s budget plans. “I take very seriously the possibility of significant cuts, including the possible elimination of both endowments. And I think the judgment involved is thoroughly frail.”
Leach expounded at length on the fruits of 50 years of NEH grants, including pathbreaking research and dozens of books and films that have captured virtually every meaningful prize in American culture. But he paused to reflect particularly on the work of state humanities councils, which are discharged by the national endowment to support programming at the local level.
“These councils produce tens of thousands of programs in the smallest, most difficult-to-reach parts of America. They make up arguably the largest humanities outreach organization in the world, doing extraordinarily impressive work tailored to the states in which they are located,” he said.
The idea of sweeping away this infrastructure strikes him as worse than foolhardy. “What you’ll have is a loss to society,” he said. “America is about a lot of things. This is a country where the realm of ideas has been dynamic, and people have respected that. If we want to take a lesser role in the higher ideals of civilization, we can make that choice. But I would urge against it.”