The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities have long been ripe targets for conservatives looking to trim fat from the federal budget, but President Donald Trump’s newly released blueprint proposes eliminating them entirely—and arts and humanities advocates are already gearing up for a fight.
Advocates feel they have a good chance of lobbying Congress to save funding for the endowments, which they say fund programs that offer crucial support to the public education system, help veterans readjust to civilian life and bring arts and culture to small communities.
“What we have here is an attack upon global citizenship and national civic culture,” Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, told TPM of the potential elimination of the NEH.
Dianne Harris, the dean of the University of Utah’s College of Humanities and a member of the National Humanities Alliance board of directors, concurred that nixing the NEH would be “devastating for our country.”
Advocates were particularly concerned that because the small grants issued by the NEA and NEH attract additional fundraising from private sources, the federal government would be nixing a cost-effective investment in the arts and humanities by eliminating the endowments. They warned that rural and poor communities would be hit hardest because those areas have fewer sources of private funding to fill the endowments’ void.
Trump’s budget proposal does not just slash funding for the endowments, which combined have an annual budget of about $300 million, but is the first of any Presidents’ to propose completely eliminating them.
“Theses agencies would be abolished,” Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN America, an advocate for the NEA and NEH, told TPM. “If these agencies are done away with, bringing them back is going to be next to impossible.”
Advocates for the NEA and NEH argue these endowments provide funding for a broad range of projects all over the country, including data collections and exhibits in local libraries, seminars for public school teachers, preservation projects and local museums. Both endowments fund state humanities councils and art agencies, which in turn disseminate funds to local communities.
“I think the stereotype may be that these are elite institutions supporting other elite institutions,” Nossel said, but she noted that they fund projects all over the country.
And advocates argue the small amount of funding that the endowment provides really does go a long way.
“NEH funding leverages millions and millions of dollars, multiples, beyond what the NEH is actually granting,” Grossman told TPM. He said that the endowment has a “vigorous” vetting process for sorting potential grantees and noted that projects can use a grant from the NEH to raise funding elsewhere.
“It is easier to raise money from private corporations, from individuals, and from foundations if one can say that this project has been vetted by the NEH’s rigorous peer review process,” he said.
The same goes for NEA grants, according to Cristine Davis, the general manager of the Performing Arts Alliance.
“One thing that’s very critical about NEA support is that it sparks investment from other donors,” Davis told TPM. “There’s not much of a replacement for that spark to additional contribution if the NEA grant is taken away.”
Advocates argue eliminating grants from the NEA and NEH would hit poor and rural communities the hardest because there isn’t as much private funding available in those areas. The endowments fund programs like the “Museum on Main Street” project that brings Smithsonian exhibits to small communities.
“In cities, in wealthier communities, there will be individuals and foundations that can step in, and the brunt of it will be felt in places where these dollars are some of the only resources available for arts and culture,” Nossel told TPM.
“Rural communities in particular are not reached by other sources of funding for history, and literature programs, programs that are delivered through museums and libraries,” Stephen Kidd, the executive director of the National Humanities Alliance, told TPM.
The NEH also funds programs for veterans, such as the Warriors-Scholar Project, which helps prepare them to attend top-tier universities. The project offers free courses to veterans to work on reading skills, learn time management and prepare for the transition to academic life. Sidney Ellington, the executive director of the program, told TPM that an NEH grant currently comprises about 10 percent of the program’s total operating budget. And he noted that a grant from the NEH a few years after the project launched had helped them expand to additional campuses.
“We owe a lot of our success to the funding that’s been provided by the NEH,” Ellington said.
With Trump’s call to eliminate the endowments looming, advocates are mobilizing their members to call their Congressional representatives and urge them to support the arts and humanities. Most advocates were cautiously optimistic that Congress would push back on Trump’s ask.
“I have much faith in the wisdom and patriotism of members of Congress who will recognize that this is bad for the United States, that cutting these programs undermines the quality of American citizenship, education, and civic culture,” Grossman told TPM.
He added that during a recent humanities advocacy day on Capitol Hill, his group spoke with congressional staffers mostly from the Republican caucus. Grossman said he was “encouraged by their understanding of the value of these programs.”
Both endowments have come under scrutiny in the past from conservatives looking to slash their funding or eliminate their funding entirely. But Janet Brown, president of Grantmakers in the Arts, told TPM that she thinks advocates are better prepared for a fight today than they were in the ’80s and ’90s, when the endowments first came under funding threats.
“At that time we were really unprepared to have this kind of debate,” she said. “And now I believe we are better organized as a sector, more willing and able to be involved politically as a national sector. I am cautiously optimistic that we are up for a good fight.”
While advocates noted that the endowments have bipartisan support in Congress, Mick Mulvaney, who leads the Office of Management and Budget, signaled Thursday that the endowments’ supporters in Congress may be in for a big fight over funding. He told reporters at a White House press briefing that Trump would veto a budget that included funding for the NEA.