Last Thursday, the Performing Arts Alliance, tells me an email, “an amendment to reduce FY11 funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) by $20.6 million was approved by the House of Representatives. This amendment was on top of the $22.5 million funding reduction already recommended by the House Appropriations Committee. The House FY11 continuing budget resolution now includes a $43.1 million funding decrease to the NEA, which represents a 25% cut from current funding.” The vote went along party lines: 214 Republicans voted for the amendment; only 3 Democrats did.
I guess artists aren’t their targeted constituency. And whose fault is that? Is art touching upon all greater truths, or just the greater truths of “enlightened” liberal intellects? Maybe Republicans have a point. Adult attendance to cultural events in 2009 had sunk to its lowest levels since 1982. “The share of adults who attended at least one arts event was 34.6%, down from 39.4% in 2002, which was the last time the survey was conducted.” Of course, the arts help out cities and communities in other ways than inspiring the public who attends them. They are huge economic engines, especially in San Francisco where the major industry is tourism.
The amendment was offered by Representative Tim Walberg. “I offered this budget amendment to save the taxpayer $20 million and believe that if American families and businesses are reducing their budgets, so should the federal government. As a patron and former finance chair of a local arts organization, I appreciate and support the arts,” Walberg said in a statement. “This funding cut would return the NEA to a funding level that it has previously operated from and yet allow it to remain an active participant in supporting the arts.” If the budget is passed, it would bring the funding level back to what it was in 2006.
But it could have gone further: “Though some would call for the full defunding of the NEA,” said Walberg in his speech on the floor, “I’m not doing that. I believe in the true fine arts, and of course that’s defined by individual standards. I found that fact as the finance chair of a symphony orchestra for a number of years. People will support what they appreciate. However, at time when our government is in a position where it must cut federal spending, I believe one of the main sources of the funding of the arts needs to be through philanthropy. But that only happens best in a sound and growing economy. The economy continues to be frustrated by the spending of government that frustrates individuals who indeed would be willing to support and in fact still do support the arts as well. The National Foundation for the Arts does provide benefits to our country and does help fund some fine and true arts. However we are asking them to only fund true priorities—priorities approved by the majority of tax payers, of citizens, of sponsors and patrons of the arts and limiting resources sometimes refocuses and defines that focus.” He then goes on to read a letter from the chairman of a manufacturing corporation in his district about the hardships his business has suffered. “We’ve found new opportunities and only spent on essentials,” the letter reads. “We did all we could to help ourselves, and we all made many sacrifices.” The arts must follow the lead of the private sector, Walberg closes.
Of course, the private sector has had a fair bit of help, too, hasn’t it? The private farm industry received $16.3 billion in subsidies in 2009. According to the New York Times, “the American tax code indicates that oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks available at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process.” Changing this, according to the industry, would cost Americans jobs and drive up the cost of a gallon of gas. But, we all have to make sacrifices, right Walberg?
I don’t know much about politics or budgets, and I’m not begrudging funding for schools, hospitals, even the military, but there seem to be institutions that could better handle a 25% cut in funding—ones that would gain the government more than a $20 million drop in the bucket—that could also use a “refocusing that defines a focus.” At the same time, Walberg’s right: we should support what we appreciate. Rachel and I just bought our first theater subscription! (More on that in another post). And on the same day, we donated to our local NPR station, which is, itself, under fire. There will always be theater, no matter what the fiscal realities are. But a world without NPR: that prospect truly terrifies me. Because I sure as hell will never turn to the TV to get my news.
To write to your senator about restoring NEA funding, go here. If you’re going to do it, do it soon. The Senate will likely take up the FY11 budget resolution when they return from the President’s Day recess on February 28.