The Trump administration wants to get the government out of the culture business.
Preliminary budget figures call for cutting all funds to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (a private non-profit that makes grants to PBS and to public radio and TV stations) and various other agencies.
Some of these, notably the NEA, have been perennial targets for the occasional loony art project. This time, however, the arguments seem to be purely financial. We have to cut the budget, and as budget director Mick Mulvaney argued, it’s unfair to ask West Virginia coal miners to pay for artsy-fartsy amusements for the idle class.
A few unexamined assumptions are embedded here, notably that coal miners don’t like art and culture.
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The budget argument falls flat, though, since arts and culture agencies take almost nothing from the $3.8 trillion or so Uncle Sam spends in a year.
The NEA, for example, ran on less than $148 million last year. That’s a lot of money for you or us, but it’s less than .004 of the federal budget, or less than 50 cents a year from the average taxpayer.
Cutting this stuff is fake economy, like the dieter who drops broccoli and Brussels sprouts from meals, while sticking to the loaded potatoes and creamy desserts.
As wags have pointed out, the federal government would save more money if the president just went to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend half as often.
Not much money, in Washington terms – but the effects would be felt locally.
In fiscal 2016, for example, the NEA granted $25,000 to Wilmington’s Cucalorus Film Festival and $10,000 to UNCW for its literary magazine, Ecotone.
As station manager Cleve Callison noted recently on these pages, local public radio station WHQR gets roughly $130,000 or about 9 percent of its budget from CPB. UNC-TV, the state’s public television network, gets about 12 percent of its budget from CPB.
All of these entities could probably survive without federal funding, but they’d be sorely cut back, and they have to go out fundraising more often and more persistently, competing with other non-profits for private money.
Other losses would be more sinister. Also slated for the ax is the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which funnels money to state libraries and to museums for things like new books and programming. If this money goes, librarians worry that libraries in rural areas will be crippled or could be forced to close.