With the official release of President Trump’s proposed budget on Thursday, arts leaders in California weren’t surprised to see the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) among the cuts. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worried about the survival of dozens of arts programs across the state, many of them serving immigrant and poor communities.
“It’s a significant blow,” says California Arts Council director Craig Watson. “Our fear is that even a loss of modest funding will have a ripple effect through local neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods that are least able to afford those losses.”
Watson says individual grants aren’t that large. In total, the NEA split $7.8 million among 119 grantees in California this year (2016-2017), while another $1.2 million went to the California Arts Council. But grantees have to match every dollar from other donors, in part to demonstrate public support for their programming or artworks. Groups say they can leverage an NEA grant nine times.
The Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) received $120,000 from the NEA last year, and the group stretched that money to support the work of everyone from Ohlone basket weavers to producers of Vietnamese opera and Cowboy poets.
“That’s the thing that really is alarming about eliminating this agency,” says ACTA director Amy Kitchener. “There really is a fragile ecosystem for the arts in this country.”
The cuts could also mean more empty galleries at museums. The NEA underwrites temporary insurance for artwork in traveling exhibitions, an often otherwise prohibitive cost even for larger museums.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) director Neal Benezra says the museum couldn’t have co-curated its current Matisse/Diebenkorn show without NEA support, seeing as paintings by Matisse are valued in the millions and tens of millions of dollars. “For many of our visitors,” Benezra wrote in an email, “these exhibitions represent the only opportunity in their lifetimes to enjoy and learn from these important works and the artists who created them.”
President Trump has also proposed eliminating the Institute for Museum and Library Science, which helped fund SFMOMA’s new Photography Interpretive Gallery.
The same fate would also befall the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds dozens of scholarly programs in California. The NEH has given San Jose State Associate Professor Matthew Spangler approximately $500,000 over the past three years, which he’s used to run a summer institute for K-12 teachers from around the country about the immigrant experience in California. As part of the program, the teachers are able to meet with authors ranging from Khaled Hosseini to Luis Valdez and Maxine Hong Kingston.
“The teachers come from all over — rural Georgia, Ohio, Wyoming, Alaska, New York — and they go back to do their schools rejuvenated,” Spangler says. “So these programs benefit the constituents of the very states of the congresspeople who will probably vote to kill them. That’s what’s kind of sad and ironic.”
Congress has considered proposals to kill federal arts and culture funding before, and rejected them.
“We’re not going to drop like a wet rock out of the sky tomorrow,” says Kitchener.
Meanwhile, Theatre Bay Area Executive Director Brad Erickson is heading a delegation of state arts leaders flying to Washington on Monday and Tuesday (March 20 and 21) to lobby Congress on what they’re calling an Arts Advocacy Day. They promise they’ll be calling on Representative Ken Calvert, who represents Riverside County and who chairs the interior subcommittee which oversees the NEA budget.
Says CAC director Watson: “This is the beginning of the battle.”