The Role of Public Funds in Supporting the Arts: What Do You Think?

TWAICB Director Sandy Sohcot writes: This past Sunday, April 23, the CBS Sunday Morning Show included a segment called For Art’s Sake: When Funding the NEA Is in Jeopardy.” The segment spotlights an arts program in Appalachia, and what could happen to it if the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) loses its funding, as currently proposed for the new federal budget. Established 48 years ago under President Lyndon Johnson, Appalshop (short for Appalachian Community Film Workshop) is a non-profit arts center that has helped significantly rejuvenate the economy of this Kentucky community, which had suffered tremendous job loss as coal mines shut down. Should Appalshop lose its NEA funding, the community would suffer major economic loss and upheaval, besides losing the benefits of the vibrant art scene it’s fostered.

Earlier in April the New York Times Opinion pages included this article by Eve L. Ewing, a sociologist at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Ms. Ewing offers  perspective on why authoritarian leaders through history have attacked art forms, sometimes seeking to censor or remove them from public view, and goes on to describe current government funding challenges faced by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). She wonders aloud about the motivation behind the current proposed severe cuts to NEA, given that the arts, besides being necessary to human development, are also a vehicle to raise awareness and make people ask questions — a vital protection against authoritarian rule.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), established by Congress in 1965 is, per its website, “the largest national funder of nonprofit arts in the U.S. Annually, the NEA awards more than 2,200 grants and cooperative agreements exceeding $130 million, funding the arts in all 50 states and six U.S. jurisdictions, including urban and rural areas, and reaching civilian and military populations.

The NEA Vision Statement seeks “A nation in which every American benefits from arts engagement, and every community recognizes and celebrates its aspirations and achievements through the arts.

“Whether affording personal insights and inspiration—or contributing to our social, civic, and economic well- being—art works for America. This work is embodied by the products and services that artists and arts organizations create. But it also assumes the empowerment of all people and places through sustained engagement with diverse and excellent art. This engagement will allow Americans fully to realize their creative and imaginative potential, both as individuals and as communities.

The NEA Vision is consistent with the human right spelled out in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

With the imminent NEA budget cuts at hand, as reported by in this March 16 Washington Post article, the questions I’d like to pose are:

  1. Should the government, funded by our tax dollars, play a role in advancing the arts? Why or why not?
  2. Are there benefits to the greater community when our tax dollars support art programs like Appalshop? If so, what are they?
  3. Are there costs to the greater community if we lose NEA? If so, what are they?

With the congressional debate gearing up on the proposed federal budget, this is an opportunity to speak up to our Senators and House Representatives about allocation of our tax dollars. Here is a link to our Resources for Speaking Up, that we hope you’ll find helpful in communicating your opinion about the government’s role in supporting the arts.

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