In a memorable “The West Wing” episode, Toby, President Bartlett’s Communications Director, announces to two members of Congress that the President is proposing in a big, upcoming speech to increase the National Endowment for the Arts budget by fifty percent. “The National Endowment amounts to less than 1/100th of one percent of the total budget for the federal government. It costs taxpayers 39 cents a year,” Toby says. “The arts budget for the U.S. is equivalent to the arts budget of Sweden.” Channeling her constituents, a Congresswoman snaps, “Arthur Murray [sic] didn’t need the N.E.A. to write ‘Death of a Salesman’.” Toby retorts: “Arthur Miller did need the N.E.A. to write ‘Death of a Salesman,’ but it wasn't called the N.E.A. back then, it was called the W.P.A.”
During debates over N.E.A. funding, a subtext looms—the creative community and progressives waste so much energy and political capital on a miniscule line item. To the contrary: I can’t imagine time or effort better spent for President Bartlett, or in real life. Witness the recent budget passed for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2017, which staves off President Trump’s proposed elimination of the N.E.A. and three other national cultural agencies: the National Endowment for the Humanities (N.E.H.), the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Authors Guild and its allies contribute immeasurably to these ongoing efforts. In March, Guild leaders visited the offices of U.S. Senators and Representatives. Arts funding was on the agenda in more than half of those meetings. The Guild also put together a campaign which garnered 3,796 signatures. In compelling letters to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, the Guild argued to members that all great societies value their writers and artists, and showed how significantly the creative arts contribute to this country’s economic output.
Beyond these, other reasons demand we keep fighting: the breadth and reach of public arts programs. “Contrary to claims from President Trump and Fox News, N.E.A. grants also help rural, not-New York, not-wealthy, Trump-friendly districts,” I recently wrote in “The N.E.A. Really Isn’t Welfare For Rich Liberal Elites,” an essay for The Culture Desk at The New Yorker. “Despite the decades-long attempts on the right to paint the N.E.A. as rarefied snobbery welching off the state, forty per cent of N.E.A. activity happens in high-poverty areas. Thirty-six per cent of its institutional grants help groups working with disadvantaged populations. And a third of grants serve low-income audiences. The N.E.A. also helps military veterans, a decidedly non-urban élite population.”
The N.E.A. was saved in the budget agreement hammered out in Congress this week. But that agreement expires at the end of September. Girding for the certain fight ahead, the Guild is forging another campaign aimed at identifying specific N.E.A. and N.E.H. projects in key Congressional districts, and asking authors and Guild members to reach out to their representatives underscoring the projects’ importance. Paralleling “The West Wing,” surely a T.V. treatment of the Trump White House is somewhere in the works. In the meantime, reality poses its own public arts challenges that all those concerned can fight for.
Rich Benjamin is a member of the Authors Guild Council and author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America. Follow him on Twitter: @RichBenjaminUSA
Photo by AmericaWriter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0