Obama Reduces Arts Funding

On February 1, 2010, President Obama released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2011, which includes funding cuts to both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The funding to each institution will be cut by more than $6 million, dropping their current budgets of $167.5 million to $161.3 million. The President’s proposed budgets for the NEA and the NEH are at the same levels he requested last year, $161.3 million, but far less than the current budgets approved by the U.S. Congress. No matter how one looks at the President’s proposed arts budget – it represents a major reduction in arts funding. The National Gallery of Art also had its budget of $167 million trimmed to $162.8, a reduction of $4.2 million. Here I must reiterate what I wrote back in February of 2009 – that the average budget for a Hollywood blockbuster movie is $200 million.

The National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs (NCACA) program was slammed particularly hard by the Obama administration. NCACA provides grants to non-profit cultural organizations that provide Washington with art exhibitions and performing arts – and more than half of its budget was slashed. The NCACA budget was cut from $9.5 million to $4.5 million. The National Symphony Orchestra is just one of the many past recipients of NCACA grant monies.

President Obama also wants the U.S. Department of Education to fully absorb the federally sponsored Arts in Education (AIE) program, consolidating it within the Department of Education under the obscure category of “Effective Teaching and Learning for Well-Rounded Education.” The AIE program provides support for arts education in public schools, and it partners with arts organizations to help students achieve arts literacy. To “consolidate,” or fold the AIE into the Department of Education is to considerably weaken the arts program. The president of Americans for the Arts, Robert L. Lynch, issued the following statement on the matter:

“This consolidation of the only identified arts-specific education program at the Department of Education seems to be in contradiction to the Administration’s previous strong vocal support of the arts. While the total available AIE grant funds are unknown at this time, it is an unbeneficial move at a time when arts education cuts are happening across the country.”

President Obama is cutting arts funding at a time when the nation’s arts community is suffering from the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. The signs exist in all areas of cultural life in the U.S., from slow or non-existent sales at small art galleries to the strangulation of major symphony orchestras because of plummeting ticket sales and dwindling endowments. The Honolulu Symphony recently declared bankruptcy and closed, and it appears the same fate awaits the Philadelphia Symphony. Museums across the U.S. continue to cut staff and programs, some have closed as the economy remains stagnant and endowments shrink. States across the U.S. are making extreme cuts to arts funding, for instance, the Democratic Governor of New York State, David Paterson, has submitted a 2010-11 budget that will slash $9.6 million from the arts.

Theater companies from coast to coast have been hard hit by the economic downturn, the legendary Pasadena Playhouse being a good example, its final curtain call came on February 7, 2010 with a closing performance of “Camelot.” Founded in 1917, the historic theater company was declared the State Theater of California in 1937, and it gave world premieres to plays by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’ Neill, and other notables. Actors who got their start at the playhouse include Charles Bronson, Raymond Burr, Victor Mature, Sally Struthers, Dustin Hoffman, and dozens of others. With falling ticket sales and endowments in decline, the Playhouse was forced to go out of business – adding 37 more workers to the millions already unemployed.

I could cite other examples of the painful economic realities now confronting the U.S. arts community, but I think the dimensions of the crisis are understood. However, a discussion of government arts funding cannot take place as if it were unrelated to larger issues. It should be emphasized that while President Obama is cutting funding for the arts, he is simultaneously making significant increases in military spending, in fact, the Pentagon’s own statistics show Obama is now spending more on the military than did former President Bush.

President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2011 includes $548.9 billion for a “baseline” military budget, plus $159.3 billion for “overseas contingency operations” (the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). His “surge” of 30,000 combat troops to Afghanistan will cost an additional $33 billion (Germany’s entire military budget for FY 2010 is $44 billion), bringing the Pentagon budget to $741.2 billion. Unofficially, billions more will go towards funding covert operations and employing over 200,000 military “contractors” (mercenaries) in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Also contained in President Obama’s 2011 budget is an additional $5 billion for modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles and facilities. As Vice President Joe Biden put it: “This investment is long overdue. It will strengthen our ability to recruit, train and retain the skilled people we need to maintain our nuclear capabilities.” What if $5 billion had instead been allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Why is it so hard to imagine such a thing?

President Obama’s 2011 budget includes an increase of around 8% for the National Science Foundation (NSF), bringing that key agency’s budget to around $7.8 billion. Obama has stated his intention to double the agency’s budget over a ten-year period. I can think of few things more valuable to the advancement of humanity than scientific research, and I have a high regard for the scientific community, so I think the NSF budget is appropriate. However, civilizations are never judged solely on the amount of scientific knowledge they possess, the arts and sciences are linked, they are the twin guiding lights by which we assess the worth of any society. The United States is an enormously powerful country blessed with incredible resources, surely its primary arts agencies – the NEA and the NEH – both conceived to serve the cultural needs of the entire nation, deserve budgets that are much larger than $161.3 million.

His gargantuan military budget aside, Obama announced in his Jan. 27, 2010 State of the Union address that he would initiate a total three-year freeze on all government spending – exempting the Pentagon and entitlement programs – beginning in 2011. Obama’s exact words:

“Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. We will continue to go through the budget, line by line, page by page, to eliminate programs that we can’t afford and don’t work.  We’ve already identified $20 billion in savings for next year.”

It should not be forgotten that during the 2008 presidential race, Senator Obama repeatedly disparaged Senator John McCain for proposing a freeze on domestic spending. At the second debate held between the candidates on Oct 7, 2008, Sen. Obama said the following:

“I think it’s important for the president to set a tone that says all of us are going to contribute, all of us are going to make sacrifices, and it means that, yes, we may have to cut some spending, although I disagree with Sen. McCain about an across-the- board freeze. That’s an example of an unfair burden sharing. That’s using a hatchet to cut the federal budget. I want to use a scalpel so that people who need help are getting help and those of us, like myself and Sen. McCain, who don’t need help, aren’t getting it.”

Apparently our Peace Laureate President lost his scalpel, and so he has borrowed Sen. McCain’s hatchet.

Arts professionals in the U.S. thought President Obama would radically expand funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (some recommending a budget of at least  $319.2 million), and that he would advocate the restoration of direct NEA grants to artists. It was anticipated that Obama would invest significant amounts of money in an arts curriculum for the public school system, and there were those who looked forward to Obama establishing a cabinet-level Secretary for Art and Culture, or at least a senior-level White House arts adviser. None of these expectations have been met, and the President’s three-year freeze on spending also guarantees that much of his highly praised Platform in Support Of The Arts (.pdf format) will never be implemented.

There are few bright spots for the arts in Obama’s 2011 budget. The president is requesting an increase of $38 million for the Smithsonian, a welcome increase that will bring the institution’s budget to $797.6 million. $140.5 million will be allocated to a number of other museums, mostly to repair and revitalize facilities. $20 million will go towards building the National Museum of African American History and Culture (scheduled to open in 2015), but all of those figures combined pale in comparison to what Obama is currently spending on his war in Afghanistan – $3.6 billion each month.

Press responses to President Obama defunding the arts have been notably subdued. Most reports barely mention the economic crisis if at all, none mention the contradictions of simultaneously cutting arts funding while significantly increasing military expenditures. A few press reports actually have an Orwellian flavor to them, as with the coverage from “Artinfo.com,” which wrote: “President Obama may be proposing funding cuts for culture in his bleak 2011 budget, but he’s once again signaled an enlightened approach to the arts.”

In fairness Artinfo was referring to Obama appointing painter Chuck Close to sit on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH). The Committee was created in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan, and it works with the NEA and NEH to support key arts programs; to recognize artistic excellence; and to advance private-public partnerships in the field of the arts and humanities. The Committee also established its own programs, like Save America’s Treasures (SAT), one of the most successful preservation programs engaged in saving America’s irreplaceable cultural heritage. Obama has totally eliminated SAT by terminating its funding in his FY 2011 budget. In describing Obama’s “enlightened approach to the arts,” Artinfo neglected to inform its readers that Close may be sitting on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, but it is a committee significantly reduced by Obama’s deep cuts.

According to Pat Lally, the congressional affairs director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, SAT “has helped preserve for future generations: Ellis Island, Mesa Verde National Park, Valley Forge, Thomas Edison’s Invention Factory, and the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the ‘Star Spangled Banner.'” That Obama would axe a program like SAT should serve as a wake-up call – the U.S. is in deep crisis, and circumstances are not improving.

The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt faced appalling economic conditions in 1932 when first coming to power. The Great Depression was in full swing, tens of millions were out of work and breadlines appeared across the country. American workers demanded that something be done, and Roosevelt responded, not by freezing government spending, but by creating the biggest public works program in U.S. history. Some eight million Americans were put to work with FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). FDR did not cut federal spending on the arts, instead he created an artist’s division of the WPA known as Federal Project Number One. Federal One programs employed well over 5,000 artists who were put to work creating murals, sculptures, posters, paintings, photographs, literature, and theatrical productions. Their works have become an enduring part of American art history.

April 8, 2010 will mark the 75th anniversary of the Works Progress Administration’s founding by an act of Congress. Commemorative events and exhibitions are planned across the country, including a march in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, April 10, 2010 to demand that President Obama enact a new public works jobs program…. but that is another blog post.

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