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Bipartisan Letter from Over 150 Members of Congress Urges More Money for the NEA

While President Trump has called for the agency’s elimination, more than 150 members of Congress want to increase funding to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Co-chairs of the Congressional Arts Caucus Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Leonard Lance (R-NJ) (public domain photos)

More than 150 members of Congress have signed a letter strongly advocating for an increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) — a demand that represents a stark split from President Trump’s own calls to simply eliminate it, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and other agencies. The signatories, notably, include 11 House Republicans, signaling growing bipartisan support for the NEA.

Penned by co-chairs of the Congressional Arts Caucus, Representatives Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY) and Leonard Lance (R-NJ), the letter suggests raising support to $155 million from its current level of about $148 million. It was sent, at the end of March, to Congressman Ken Calvert (R-CA), chairman of the House subcommittee that provides annual appropriations for the NEA and the NEH; and to Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN), a ranking member of that subcommittee.

The NEA’s logo (public domain image)

“Federal investment in the arts provides all Americans with expanded opportunities to engage with the arts in each state and district,” the letter reads. “The NEA reached its peak funding at $176 million in FY92, and has never fully recovered from a 40 percent budget cut in FY96.”

While it highlights oft-championed facts — like how the arts boost the economies of communities across the country and also lead to higher test scores and grade point averages — the letter opens by highlighting how the NEA benefits military service members. It’s a smart, pointed counter to Trump’s proposed budget, which envisions a $54-billion increase in defense spending. The NEA, as the letter describes, is “at the forefront of a national effort to support arts and health in the military.”

The letter’s writers make the case for how veterans rely on art therapy programs, which have grown in demand among military treatment facilities. Art therapy, notably, is the very cause that Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen Pence, has dedicated much work to, and intends to continue to do as Second Lady of the United States. One particular program the letter highlights is the Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, which actually partners with the Department of Defense to increase access to art therapy at many clinical sites. The letter specifically suggests that $1.9 million of the proposed NEA funding boost — roughly $7 million — should go to the Creative Forces program.

Statistics that reveal significant economic benefits of the arts and culture sector then follow: the letter emphasizes how it contributes over $729 billion to the nation’s economy, or 4.23% of its GDP — more than the respective contributions from construction or transportation and warehousing industries.

“Few other federal investments have such a widespread impact and multiplying effect across the nation as does the Arts Endowment,” the letter reads. “For every one dollar spent on direct grants, nearly nine non-federal dollars are matched, generating $600 million in matching support while at the same time enriching our children and communities with access to the arts they might no otherwise have.”

The letter’s writers add the important point that 40% of  the Endowment’s grant-making budget is re-granted through the work of state and regional arts agencies. They also illustrate the range of programs that the NEA has created, naming successful ones from The Mayors’ Institute on City Design to Poetry Out Loud.

Poetry Out Loud’s 2010 Minnesota state finals, as part of its National Recitation Contest (photo by Nic McPhee, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

The signatures of 11 Republicans add to a gradual growth in conservatives’ public support of the NEA. In February, two Republican senators attached their names to a letter sent to Trump asking him to not eliminate the NEA and NEH. A few weeks ago, former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee penned an op-ed in the Washington Post describing why devoting federal dollars to the arts is “essential.” It was titled, “A conservative plea for the National Endowments for the Arts,” and ended with a reminder that it was Richard Nixon who oversaw the greatest increase in arts funding ever.

With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress today, every sign of support from their party of the arts, even if small, is a significant gesture.

“This bipartisan effort is really important because the president’s proposed cuts to federal arts funding would be absolutely devastating,” Slaughter told Hyperallergic. “The NEA’s budget makes up 0.004 % of the federal budget but the return on investment is staggering. Right now, the NEA is even helping treat service members suffering from PTSD, TBI, and other wounds of war. That’s a program we should all agree is worthy of a federal investment.”

Read the letter in full here.

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