President Trump just released his FY18 budget proposal and, as had been rumored, the package would completely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The NEA, in particular, has been a bete noire for many conservatives since the 1980s when a series of controversial exhibitions, particularly those featuring work by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, angered Republican members of Congress.
Although the exhibitions reviled by conservatives constituted a vanishingly small portion of the NEA budget, the agency has struggled to stave off their anger. The elimination of the NEA likely has more to do with symbolism than fiscal prudence, as the total funding of both agencies amounts to a rounding error in the federal budget. As far as symbolism is concerned, it is worth noting that the NEA had already been physically displaced from its former home in the building which has now become a Trump hotel. Moreover, the cost of redecorating the hotel significantly exceeded the entire annual NEA budget.
Unfortunately, the largest impact of destroying the NEA will likely be felt in areas outside the nation's metropolitan centers, whose public museums and private galleries will survive. In recent years, the NEA has increasingly focussed on supporting community projects in parts of the country that have few cultural resources, providing funding for projects radio stations in rural areas, community-based theater companies and programs for returning veterans.
As President Trump relies heavily on family and personal relationships in his decision-making, some had hoped that advocates for the arts with access to the President might have provided some protections for the endowments. Karen Pence, the wife of the Vice President, is an advocate for art therapy and a longtime painter. Ivanka Trump is a serious collector of contemporary art whose collection includes works by Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, David Ostrowski and many others. During the presidential transition, Mr. Trump himself seemed to evince some interest in the NEA when he reportedly offered his friend Sylvester Stallone a chance to run the endowment. Stallone, a long-time painter whose work has been widely exhibited, was reportedly flattered but declined the offer.
As the budget proposal moves through Congress, there is still a chance that funding for the endowments could be restored. Many arts organizations are already mobilizing support. However, the endowments themselves, legally barred from lobbying, cannot advocate for their own survival.