On the NEA

by Jennifer Lena, Columbia Universityfullsizeoutput_46c


(Originally published as part of Lena’s “Word from the Chair,” Section Culture,Newsletter of the Culture SectionVol. 29 #1-2)


In March 2017, the Trump administration released a budget proposal (“America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again”) that included the elimination of federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. (2) I am mindful that our large section contains members with varied opinions about the budget proposal and the work of the NEA. Given the expertise and interests of our section membership, I strongly believe that those opinions should be influential in the public debate now unfolding. And before I proceed further, it is worth noting that eliminating the NEA will require an actual act of Congress, not just a ratification of the president’s budget.

The budget for the NEA in 2016 was $147.9 million. (3) That constitutes approximately .004% of the total federal budget, and amounts to a per capita cost of about 46 cents. In truth, grants from the NEA provide a relatively minor portion of the funding that American arts organizations require. Only 1.2% of arts organizations’ funding comes from the federal government. (4) Our system is demonstrably different from most of our peer nations’ in that we have a “third-party,” decentralized system of arts funding. In fact, the most significant federal recipients of arts funding are the Smithsonian ($840 million) and the Department of Defense ($437 million for military bands alone) (5) It is still the case that the largest form of federal support for the arts comes in the form of tax expenditures (i.e., most fine arts organizations enjoy 501(c)3 tax exempt status, which is implicitly a 1:3 or 1:2 federal matching grant that is framed as a tax deduction, depending on what marginal tax rate you assume). (6)

The majority of the NEA’s budget is spent on grantmaking—more than 80%.(7) Those grantmaking funds are divided between two simple categories: awards to state and regional arts agencies (40% of the grant dollars) and awards to organizations and individuals that apply through the agency’s funding categories (60%). The awards to arts agencies are significant in two respects: first, they provide direct funding in every congressional district in the country.(8) Federal (and state) agencies tend to give money to communities where other funders don’t go, including small towns and rural areas. The vast majority of foundations and individual donors concentrate their giving in their immediate geographic area (rural areas receive only 5.5% of all philanthropic dollars), which means that the areas with the most wealth (most are big cities on the coasts) are also the ones that receive the most philanthropic funding. (9) As a result, resources are few and far between for arts organizations and public radio and television stations alike in rural America. (10) Second, the NEA requires that a portion of every state and regional partnership grant be allocated to underserved communities. (11) More than half of NEA-funded art events take place in locations where the median household income is less than $50,000, and 40% of NEA-supported activities take place in high-poverty neighborhoods. (12)

NEA individual awards are perhaps the most misunderstood work done by the agency. In the past they have been the focus of attempts to eliminate the NEA (e.g., in 1981, 1989, 1995). As a result of successful challenges from political conservatives, individual grants have been eliminated excluding those in literature (predominantly for translating works to English), and the lifetime achievement awards in jazz, folk, and traditional arts. Grants to arts organizations, the NEA’s Grants for Arts Projects, are split into four categories: Art Works, Challenge America Fast-Track, Our Town, and Research: Art Works. The Art Works grants effectively replace individual grants, providing awards to organizations in one of sixteen disciplines (e.g., dance, theater) via a peer review panel. Fast-Track grants are given to organizations that facilitate the presentation of the arts to underserved populations. Our Town grants are given to non-profit organizations that partner with local government to support creative placemaking projects. Research grants support analyses of data on the impact and value of the arts in this country. All recipients of this award are required to author at least one paper that is shared with the public, and the list of findings include many of us as authors. (13)

But perhaps the most critical resource that the NEA provides to sociologists is the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). The NEA Research Division, currently helmed by Sunil Iyengar, provides this resource, the single largest cross-sectional survey of arts participation trends in the history of this country. Almost 100,000 Americans have completed the survey, and it has become the most useful and valuable source of nationally-representative, publically-accessible data on Americans’ engagement with culture. As such, it has been a key source for many of us who seek to understand patterns in cultural preferences, attitudes, and behaviors. A Google Scholar search reveals there are over 1,000 manuscripts that mention the “survey of public participation in the arts.” These articles and books focus on questions of significant public value, including the relationship between arts engagement and healthy living, the association of broad tastes with non-discriminatory attitudes, and the relationship of gender and race to arts access. Being able to attach the SPPA module to Federal surveys like the Census encourages participation and enhances the reliability of these data. The Research Division staff routinely requests survey feedback from social scientists, including many of us, to enhance the validity of its questions.

Some have argued that we should abandon federal funding for the arts and instead create a private foundation with the same mission. Just to maintain current funding levels, which are well below the agency’s inflation-adjusted peak from 1992, one would have to raise an endowment of approximately $3 billion, which would rank among the nation’s largest private foundations. (14) Kansas tried to do something like this several years ago—Governor Sam Brownback terminated the Kansas Arts Commission with the plan of setting up a new private entity, the Kansas Arts Foundation. (15) The plan never got off the ground due to poor fundraising results, and the next year the arts council was brought back to life under a new name. (16) George Will is among those who have argued that because the arts that are funded by the NEA are disproportionately enjoyed by those of higher income and education levels it, in Paul D. Ryan’s opinion (R-Wisc.), amounts to a “wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier.” (17) But this is a complaint about the operation of the NEA’s panels and not an argument for their elimination.

As a government agency, the NEA possesses the ability to help set agendas in an otherwise leaderless ecosystem. The national scope of the NEA means that they can and are attentive to funding gaps in ways that private funders find impossible. Some argue that, as a federal agency, the NEA is uniquely positioned to create inter-agency cooperation (e.g., with Veteran’s Affairs), conduct and publish research on the nation’s arts engagement and production, and provide “risk capital” that allows organizations to launch and field test innovations. Examples include the Department of Defense partnering with the NEA on Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network while the Department of Housing and Urban Development is involved with the NEA’s arts-based community development activities.

I appreciate your attention to this issue, and encourage you to investigate it in your classes and with your students and colleagues. I’ll include some links to additional resources, below.


Additional Arguments Against Federal Arts Funding

Broad Information About the Arts Sector


(1) http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la- et-cm-nea-stopgap-budget-20170501-story.html

(2) https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.- gov/files/omb/budget/fy2018/2018_blueprint.p- df

(3) https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/nea- quick-facts.pdf

(4) https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/how- the-us-funds-the-arts.pdf

(5) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/02/us/mili- tary-bands-budget.html?_r=0

(6) Cowen, Tyler. 2010. Good and Plenty: The Crea- tive Successes of American Arts Funding. Prince- ton: Princeton University Press.

(7) https://www.arts.gov/publications/how-united- states-funds-arts

(8) https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/nea- quick-facts.pdf

(9) https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2015/ august/foundation-giving-to-rural-areas-in-the- united-states-is-disproportionately-low/

(10) On arts organizations: https://www.theatlantic.- com/entertainment/archive/2017/03/what-eli- minating-the-arts-and-humanities-endowments- would-really-mean/519774/. On public radio: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/ wp/2017/03/15/trumps-budget-will-likely-slash- public-media-but-the-biggest-losers-wont-be-pbs- and-npr/?utm_term=.59a4784f69de

(11) https://www.arts.gov/publications/how-united- states-funds-arts

(12) https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/NEA- FAQ-March2017-rev.pdf

(13) https://www.arts.gov/artistic-fields/research- analysis/research-art-works-study-findings

(14) http://www.americansforthearts.org/sites/de- fault/files/pdf/2014/by_program/research__stu- dies_and_publications/one_pagers/4. NEA Di- scretionary Spending_Updated_0.pdf

(15) http://createquity.com/2011/06/reactions-to- the-demise-of-the-kansas-arts-commission/

(16) http://createquity.com/2012/06/brownback- caves-kansas-gets-its-arts-funding-back/

(17) https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ abolish-the-national-endowment-for-the-arts/ 2017/03/15/0b6ca778-08db-11e7-a15f-a58- d4a988474_story.html?utm_term=.c99d7c- c36758