Signs at the Women's March on Washington (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Signs at the Women’s March on Washington (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Today, 24 Democratic, Republican, and independent US Senators signed and sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him not to slash or cut completely federal funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (NEA and NEH). The two agencies — which, for financial year 2016, had budgets of just under $148 million apiece, combining to account for less than 0.0075% of the federal budget for the year — are among the entities that could see their funding partially or completely cut under the Trump administration’s preliminary budget. The threats to the NEA and NEH have met with stern opposition from artists and figures across the political spectrum.

Today’s letter, led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D–New York), was signed by two Republicans (senators Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia and Susan M. Collins of Maine), two independents (senators Angus S. King Jr. of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont), and 20 Democrats. It encourages Trump “to support the Chairmen of these agencies, who demonstrate a continued commitment to supporting the arts and humanities.” The letter also makes an economic case for the agencies’ vitality: “The US Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that the arts and culture sector is a $704 billion industry, or 4.2 percent of the nation’s GDP.”

Whether the Senators’ rational arguments will hold water with a man who, in 1999, claimed that as president he would curtail NEA funding because of an exhibition the agency had absolutely no role in, remains to be seen. However, Trump’s only direct interaction with the NEA and NEH to date seems a bleak sign of what may be to come: in 2013, when he took over the lease of Washington, DC’s Old Post Office Building to turn it into a luxury hotel, the two agencies were among those evicted.

The 24 Senators’ joint letter to Trump reads in full:

Dear Mr. President,

We write today in support of the critical work being done at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). These federal agencies provide vital support and resources to endeavors in the arts and humanities across the country that serve as drivers of innovation and economic prosperity. We encourage you to support the Chairmen of these agencies, who demonstrate a continued commitment to supporting the arts and humanities.

Since its creation in 1965, the NEH has funded groundbreaking scholarly research, preserved essential cultural and educational resources, cataloged more than 63 million pages of our nation’s historic newspapers, and helped millions of young people grapple with the lessons of history. Additionally, both the NEH and NEA offer healing programs for those who serve in our Armed Services and their families, as well as veterans reintegrating into civilian life.

Also established in 1965, the NEA supports art and education programs in every Congressional District in the United States. Access to the arts for all Americans is a core principle of the Endowment. The majority of NEA grants go to small and medium-sized organizations, and a significant percentage of grants fund programs in high-poverty communities. Furthermore, both agencies extend their influence through states’ arts agencies and humanities councils, ensuring that programs reach even the smallest communities in remote rural areas.

Programs offered through the NEA and NEH not only help Americans express their values and forge connections between cultures, but they also serve as important economic drivers. The US Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that the arts and culture sector is a $704 billion industry, or 4.2 percent of the nation’s GDP. The nonprofit arts industry alone produces $135 billion in economic activity annually and generates $22.3 billion in government revenue. The arts spur tourism, prepare our students for the innovative thinking required in the 21st century workplace, and employ more than 4 million people in the creative industries nationally.

While it is very rare for artists or institutions, like museums, to secure funding from just one source, it is the funding from these agencies that stimulate strong private investments. These agencies collaborate with private foundations across the country to bring artistic endeavors to life. In fact, each dollar awarded by the NEA leverages nine dollars from other sources.

The ideals of these agencies are enshrined in our Constitution as a fundamental tenet of American civil society. Article I, Section 8 explicitly empowers the United States Congress to promote the “Progress of Science and useful Arts.” The importance of federal support for these activities inherently aligns with the founding principles of this country.

Federal support for the arts and humanities is essential to our education system, economy, and who we are as a nation. We hope you will keep this in mind as you consider proposals that support these fundamental American institutions.

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...