About 400 people descended upon City Hall at noon today for a “Rally to Save the Arts,” a public conference organized the Council’s majority leader Jimmy Van Bramer to resist President Trump’s threats to federal funding of arts and culture. The event featured short speeches by City Council members; high-profile artists, from lead Broadway performers to David Byrne; and Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl; and immediately prefaced a committee hearing of a resolution Van Bramer introduced in March. The proposal calls upon Trump to fully fund the very agencies he wants to completely cut to instead funnel billions of dollars into the military sector: the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (NEA and NEH), the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, among many others.
While a band played nearby, members of organizations, from the two-month-old protest group We Make America to the nearly century-old Actors’s Equity Association, held signs and banners on the steps of City Hall behind the speaker podium. Messages like “The Earth without art is just ‘eh!'” and “Even cavemen valued art” colored the square, which was filled with a cocktail of artists, arts educators, politicians, members of the press, and New Yorkers who simply wanted to fight for their beloved institutions. Brooklyn resident Pamela Arm was there “as a person who loves her library who thinks literature is important,” she said, while holding a “Save our Libraries!” sign.
The idea for a rally emphasizing the value of the arts was partially inspired by the successful fight against Trumpcare; Van Bramer attributes the healthcare plan’s defeat to Americans’ persistent calls and postcards to their representatives expressing their opposition.
“Just as the President assaulted healthcare for millions of Americans, he’s now assaulting the arts, culture, humanities, and libraries, and seeking to deprive hundreds of millions of Americans the right to experience and express themselves through art and culture,” Van Bramer told Hyperallergic. “We want to have the same kind of resistance movement against Trump’s assault on the arts.”
Council members from all boroughs — except Staten Island — primarily spoke about the important role the arts has in economic development and in creating jobs, regardless of location. Byrne highlighted a recent study published by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice that examined low- and moderate-income residents in New York City. Its research found that investing in the arts yields a variety of benefits, from lowering crime rates to increasing students’ exam scores to decreasing cases of child abuse.
“How can you argue with that?” Byrne told Hyperallergic. “It’s a cheap way to get that. You don’t have to increase the police force to lower the crime, just put a library in there.”
Federal funding of the arts is cheap, relatively speaking: the programs Trump is targeting comprise just 0.02% of the total budget. As Comptroller Scott Stringer emphasized, these dollars really go a long way (and not only in urban areas). Organizations across New York City alone have received about $233 million in NEA grants since 2000, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer, with recipients in Brooklyn and the Bronx more than doubling in that period. That money has a lasting impact.
“When you have an NEA grant and you’re a small arts organization, that gives you entrée into the entire donor community,” Stringer said. “The NEA is a stamp of approval.”
Another speaker, Asian American Arts Alliance‘s Executive Director Andrea Louie, framed the legacy of federal funding in another way. The money, she said, allows minorities to amplify and share their histories; it’s necessary to preserve the diverse cultural identities found not only in New York City but also across the nation.
“It’s important to be here today because we really believe that public funding of the arts is really critical to have all our stories told, heard, and honored,” Louie told Hyperallergic. “In particular, small organizations that support marginalized communities including immigrant communities and communities of color are disproportionately reliant on government funding.”
Louie attended the rally with arts educator and executive director of Leviathan Lab Ariel Estrada, who spoke of how he has witnessed firsthand the far-reaching impact of cultural funding on communities at a grassroots level.
“All of this stuff trickles down into the neighborhoods,” Estrada told Hyperallergic. “[The Trump Administration] doesn’t see how that federal funding affects communities, just regular folks. It’s just personally offensive to me because I’ve been out there in the trenches doing this work in New York for about 20 years.”
The speaker lineup for Rally to Save the Arts, notably, was void of any of these everyday denizens who may have shared their own experiences. Van Bramer’s approach to invite government officials and local Broadway stars — who performed beautiful songs and spoken-word pieces — clearly managed to draw numbers to the cause. But had there been a platform for lesser-known figures in the arts to speak, the event would’ve had much more depth.
We Make America member and artist Ron Baron also expressed disappointment in the lineup’s lack of representation for the visual arts. (The event’s Facebook page lists Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, as a speaker, but the posting was an error, according to a museum spokesperson.)
“I thought that was a little bit flawed in their presentation,” Baron said. “We all know how big the visual arts are in New York City, and it just seemed to me they could have had a couple of others who really know that community.”
Unfortunately, the presentation was diminished by the fact that its speakers’ microphones did not work, so many people were straining to understand them. One such attendee was artist Rachel Selekman, another We Make America member. For her, though, her presence was what mattered most — to show up and come together with hundreds of others to support art of all types.
“A lot of people take for granted that art surrounds them all the time, whether it’s architecture or the music you listen to,” Selekman said. “It’s everywhere, and it’s too easy to forget it’s a part of our every day life. And it needs to remain so.”
At the very least, Rally to Save the Arts was an energetic and rousing event, filled with chants, cheers, and many jabs at Trump. It felt good to be there on a beautiful spring day under a bright sun, and hear politicians show their excitement about arts funding. The occasion may fly under Trump’s own radar, but it riled up 400 people, who make not just for a large crowd, but for a whole lot of phone calls and postcards, too.