Who Stands to Lose the Most if the NEA Is Eliminated?

Prof. Zannie Voss, director of SMU's National Center for Arts Research, provided expertise for this story.


Most Americans are less familiar with the National Endowment for the Arts’s mission than with its reputation as a source of controversy and Republican ire. The NEA has long been a target for elimination by Republicans, but they’ve never succeeded in wiping it out altogether. Until, perhaps, now.

Pressing fears about the agency’s future arose after a report by The Hill revealed that an early Trump budget proposal is based heavily off plans drawn up by the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, which prescribes eliminating funding to the NEA and its sister agency the National Endowment for the Humanities. Several pieces have come out debunking the idea that cuts are fiscally necessary, given how little the NEA actually receives in government funding—about $147.9 million in fiscal year 2016, or 0.004% of the $3.9 trillion federal budget. Since the original report in The Hill, there hasn’t been much by the way of confirmation.

Regardless of the NEA’s future, it’s worth pausing to examine what it actually does and why it’s significant, beyond its role as one of the few dedicated government patrons of art organizations, education programs, exhibitions, festivals, and more. In response to the potential elimination of the agency, Australian artist Tega Brain created a running list of the projects it funded last year. On its relatively miniscule budget, the agency has an outsize impact, both through its grants programs as well as an indemnity program that saves museums millions of dollars. It helps arts organizations raise private funds, and its geographical mandate ensures that funds reach beyond the nation’s cultural capitals. Here are three key things to know about the NEA.

A crucial aspect of the NEA is that it is a national organization with a mission to “promote equal access to the arts in every community across America,” according to its website. This means the agency’s impact reaches beyond just cultural capitals or the coasts. Instead, NEA “funds are geographically distributed so that they’re touching counties, states, communities throughout the country,” says Zannie Voss, director of the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR). “There’s no other support source that is able or in a position to provide that kind of national elevation of arts and culture.”

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