At the local, state, and federal levels, governments are facing budget shortfalls, attempting to spend more money than they’re bringing in. Forever trying to avoid raising taxes, legislators, mayors, school board members, and more look to cut every bit of funding that’s unneeded or wasteful in the name of saving money. Programs that get the axe are often public services, sometimes unpopular and sometimes expensive.
One of the most common and damaging victims of these cuts has been the arts. Despite being vital to many lives and communities, arts funding has found itself on the chopping block in schools, communities, and, notably, the federal budget. Ultimately, at each of these levels, governments must return to recognizing the transformative potential of art and continue to invest to make it more accessible and universal in a society that dearly needs it.
Over the last four years, former President Donald Trump made continuous attacks on the National Arts Endowment, proposing to cut the agency’s funding completely in each of his proposed budgets. The National Arts Endowment (NEA) was founded by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 in an effort to provide supplemental funding for the arts in recognition of the arts “as a vital part of our national life, and not a luxury.”
Funding for the NEA is not a substantial part of the federal budget ($162 million for 2020), but it provides funding to projects that would not otherwise be profitable, especially in impoverished communities; nearly half of all NEA supported activities take place in high-poverty neighborhoods, and many reach underserved populations. Beyond all of this, it represents a powerful commitment to the place of the arts in American society, a commitment that sees enrichment in the arts not as a privilege for the wealthy few but as a vital part of everyone's lives.
Cutting NEA’s budget could have disastrous effects not only for the many thousands of artists it funds directly and their audiences but also the outlook for art in our country as a whole. The idea has gained traction with many on the right, who argue that the NEA is wasteful and unnecessary. The NEA, somewhat miraculously, has survived Trump’s presidency. Mostly thanks to bipartisan support in Congress, its budget has modestly increased, though still substantially less than inflation has, resulting in an actual federal funding decrease of 10% over the last twenty years.
Despite its importance and prominence at the federal level, NEA funding is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of arts funding in the United States. The majority of public funding for the arts comes from state and local governments that spend 35% and 12% less on the arts now then in 2000, respectively.
Even more ubiquitous, though, is the well-known phenomenon of the arts slowly being stripped out of schools. Since 2000, when over one-fifth of schools offered both theatre and dance classes, schools have rapidly changed their priorities, with data showing that in 2010 only 3% of schools had dance classes and only 4% had theatre classes.
The benefits of art education are widely acknowledged, helping students engage more effectively and improving overall learning outcomes. Despite this, the contraction in arts funding is continuous, and it threatens to have major long term consequences. Unsurprisingly, cuts to arts funding in schools disproportionately affect people of color and other marginalized communities. Arts funding is a racial justice issue, deeply entangled in white supremacist structures of education and generations of wealth built on racism, but there are opportunities to push back.
Artists and educators across the country are calling for new and deepened investments in arts education. In Massachusetts, lawmakers have the opportunity to fund the Student Opportunity Act, which will distribute additional funds to school districts. Educators see this as an opportunity to reinvest in arts education, arguing that “arts education is one of the tools we need now to build a better world.”
At all levels of government, leaders need to do a better job of actively identifying the privileges that usually allow for the creation and consumption of art: privilege on axes of race, class, ability, education level, and more. Arts funding, from schools to the NEA, have both the opportunity and duty to address these inequalities and fight for the arts as a vital part of our human lives.