Can We Stop Picking On The NEA?

As you read this, arts advocates across the nation are firing out emails and social media posts about President Trump’s proposal—for the third year in a row—to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Hopefully, Congress will once again reject the proposal, as it has twice now.

With any luck, this annual attack on arts and humanities will broaden the public’s understanding that opportunities for cultural engagement and creative expression are just as integral to social wellbeing as adequate food, housing, income, and the pursuit of meaningful work.

We are way past the point where we should be picking on the NEA.

Earlier this month, I helped organize a meeting in Washington D.C. between staffers from the state’s Congressional delegation and Massachusetts residents to share examples of the ways art is necessary for human happiness. A ninth grader from Arlington High School shared how her love of the cello helped her through a difficult time in middle school in ways that seeing a therapist could not. “Playing music allows you to express your feelings without words, when talking to someone is too much,” she said.

Cathy Edwards of the New England Foundation for the Arts described how she struggled to understand what it meant to be an American when she was growing up overseas as the daughter of a diplomat. “I’d watch the Brady Bunch and look for clues,” she told the staffers.

But it wasn’t until Edwards saw Revelations, performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the foot of the Parthenon in an ancient amphitheater as an American teenager amid 4,000 Greek citizens, that she finally connected to the power of the American story, encountering the brilliance of Ailey’s genius and his telling of the African-American experience.

Access to these experiences is uneven and largely predicated on income and geography. Middle- and upper-income people who live in urban areas are far more likely to have the sorts of cultural experiences we talked about in Washington. Meanwhile, headlines about $90 million paintings reinforce the perception that art is a past time for the one percent with little relevance to everyday life.

Public investment in arts organizations and programs is the only way to ensure that everyone has access to their benefits, which include delaying the aging process by engaging in music, writing, and dance; building resilience among veterans and their families with community art projects and classes; and improving student performance across all academic disciplines with sequential arts education from K-12. Creative expression through writing and other dramatic activities can improve public health and even make the delivery of healthcare more efficient for patients and practitioners alike. Arts-based endeavors spur economic activity. Cultural districts in lower-income areas reduce poverty and connect people across neighborhood, ethnic, and class divides. Taken together, investments in art for whole communities can even pay off in higher property values.

None of this happens by accident. Half of all events funded by the NEA take place in communities where the median household income is less than $50,000 and 40 percent take place in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty. Over 35 percent of NEA grants go to organizations that serve veterans, people with disabilities, and people who are confined to institutions. These public dollars—just $155 million in fiscal year 2019, or .004 percent of the federal budget—ensure that children in school districts with no funding for arts classes still get to field trips to theaters and museums. They finance cultural districts in poverty-stricken neighborhoods and rural communities. And each public dollar granted to nonprofit arts organizations brings in another nine from private sources, sustaining the art sector’s base, which contributes $729 billion to the nation’s economy.

When access to cultural engagement and creative expression is restricted based on income and geography, we’re all made poorer for it.

 

See this article on WGBH's website.

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