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Benefiting from the NEA

Last week President Obama spoke about reducing the national deficit by cutting unnecessary spending. One of the cuts he proposed was a $21 million cut to the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent agency of the federal government that extends support and funding for exceptional arts projects. While his initial proposal may seem prudent in the face of today ‘s wrecked economy, will the result of such an action save money but cost jobs? Does the NEA serve an economic as well as aesthetic purpose to our nation or is it an expendable fringe benefit in a belt tightening world?

The NEA was created by Congress in 1965. Since its inception, it has awarded more than 135,000 grants totaling more than $4 billion. The goals of the NEA are to promote the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, to engage the public with diverse and excellent art and to promote public knowledge and understanding about the contributions of the arts. It offers support in three categories- Grants for the arts projects, national initiatives and partnership agreements. Projects and programs such as the Vietnam Vet Memorial, Sundance Film Festival, Public Broadcasting ‘s Great Performance Series and the American Film Institute were recipients of NEA awards. The NEA partners with local and regional art organizations where forty percent of its revenues are directed. The NEA is also an active advocate of arts in education. 

Over the years the NEA has come under fire for supporting controversial or questionable art endeavors.  Attempts have been made to terminate the organization as far back as 1981 when president Ronald Reagan intended to dismantle the program. Allies of his, like actor Charleton Heston, helped in persuading him to understand the importance of continued federal support for the arts. Between 1989 and 1997 the NEA came under attack by conservative Christian groups, conservative media and Congress. House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for the abolishment of the NEA and some members of congress rallied against the funding of controversial artists while others deemed it a wasteful expense and an elitist organization. In 1996 congress succeeded in cutting funding to the NEA for supporting controversial artists such as Robert Clark Young, Barbara Degenevieve, Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. Controversy surrounded the organization again in 2009 when the then communications director was alleged to be advocating for Barack Obama ‘s domestic agenda.

The current yearly budget for the NEA is $167.5 million. President Obama ‘s budget request is to reduce that number to $146 million, and some feel that congress will push to dismantle the agency completely. In his State of the Union address, Obama stated that it was time to “prioritize and identify the programs and agencies that work and invest in them to win the future.” The American taxpayer is paying close attention to every move made by government representatives and watching where every tax dollar is spent. Can the NEA expect to survive such close scrutiny? Does the average American understand the need for such an agency and more importantly, will they support it?

The organization that constitutes the NEA employs between fifty to two hundred people directly. The grant program allows for the creation of additional jobs and employment opportunities for hundreds more than that. With every project there is a need not just for artists, but technicians, construction workers, fabricators, managers, assistants, not to mention the availability of internships for young, aspiring artists. The NEA secures a place for the arts in a society that overlooks their necessity. If we supported arts and arts programs the way that we that we support professional sports in this country there would be no need for a National Endowment for the Arts. Perhaps the greatest good that the NEA can do going forward is to educate the American people about the fundamental necessity that drives not only the arts, but all of mankind- creativity. The NEA can and should make its message more mainstream and less elite. Everyone benefits from the arts because all of us have an intrinsic need to create. If we allow that creative instinct to whither, then our nation whithers as well. 

Perhaps it is time for the National Endowment of the Arts to awaken the artists and performers in all of us so that we can come to appreciate what is truly art instead of shallow celebrity-ism. Among the shambles of a broken economy, we have the opportunity, through organizations like the NEA, to understand and appreciate what feeds our minds, souls and creative appetites and elevate ourselves individually and as a culture.

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