Back in the 1990s, conservatives tried to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts.
They pointed to NEA funding of controversial works — performance artist Karen Finley smearing her body with chocolate comes to mind — to drum up support to get rid of the federal agency, which was established in 1965 to promote the arts. People with cooler heads, appreciating the power of art to elevate a society, fended them off.
But under President Donald Trump, the NEA once again is on the chopping block, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Both agencies cost the federal government very little, relatively speaking. The NEA’s budget was $148 million in 2016. As Sun-Times theater and dance critic Hedy Weiss recently reported, that’s about three-thousandths of the overall federal budget. The National Endowment for the Humanities has a comparable, small budget.
But both go a long way in making our world a heck of a lot more interesting. An enlightened society supports these causes. On some level, Trump understands this. He spent most of his life in New York, America’s performing arts capital.
For arts groups across the country, including the Chicago area, the impact of the NEA has been enormous.
This year the Paramount Theatre’s Broadway Series in Aurora received a $10,000 NEA grant to help develop new musicals, Weiss reported. Paramount President Tim Rater told Weiss that Paramount has applied for a $200,000 grant for a new performing arts school, rehearsal space and housing for visiting artists.
Success for Paramount means success for surrounding restaurants and other businesses. It shines a bright light on Aurora.
Another local group benefitting from an NEA grant is Third Coast Percussion. It won a Grammy this year for best chamber music/small ensemble performance. The $10,000 grant it received will go toward a multi-media concert touring project, ensemble member and development director Robert Dillon told Weiss.
Don’t be fooled when conservatives pile on the occasional bizarre piece of art to condemn government support for the arts in general. They would have you believe that it’s all outlandish stuff that would offend your grandmother.
That’s not at all the case. A chunk of NEA grants help underserved communities. A visual arts exhibition of works by Alaskan artists is on a national tour thanks to an NEA grant. Kids in the rural Chattahoochee Hills of Georgia will get a free day of arts programming because of a grant.
In fiscal year 2016, every Congressional District across the country received a grant, according to the NEA.
Without the agency, America would lose some of its creativity. And that’s not the America we know.
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