Government

A ‘Shot Over the Bow’

Groups Respond to Reported Plan to Cut Arts and Humanities Endowments

January 20, 2017

Supporters of the arts and humanities on Thursday sounded unanimous alarm over an article in The Hill reporting that President-elect Donald J. Trump’s administration plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Neither endowment is commenting on the newspaper’s report.

"We are not going to speculate on the policies or priorities of the new administration," Theola DeBose, a spokeswoman for the humanities endowment, said in an email to The Chronicle.

But private organizations that team up with the federal cultural endowments are worried. Combined, the two agencies accounted for a little under $300 million of the $3.9 trillion in the 2016 federal budget.

“We see this as a kind of shot over the bow going after the arts and humanities and scholarship and intellectual life in the country.”
Funding for the NEH and NEA has not changed significantly under President Obama, though Republicans have frequently targeted the two agencies over the years for cuts and criticism.

A budget resolution put forward by Republicans in the House of Representatives in 2014 called for eliminating funds for both agencies. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, released a list of reasons to eliminate support for the arts endowment in 1997. The Hill cited the Heritage Foundation’s work in its article on Thursday.

Robert D. Newman, president and director of the National Humanities Center, a nonprofit group dedicated to the study of the humanities, said supporters had rallied on behalf of federal funds before and would do so again now.

Mr. Newman said his organization received around $400,000 in NEH support in its current budget. He called the newspaper’s report "devastating news to us on a number of fronts," and said that the consequences of such an action could stretch further than just funding.

The center feels "great concerns," he said, about how eliminating the arts and humanities endowments would undercut the promotion and sustainability of cultural products for the nation as a whole — "not just inquiry into culture, but the production of culture."

Other groups expressed similar concerns.

"We see this as a kind of shot over the bow going after the arts and humanities and scholarship and intellectual life in the country," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the literary advocacy organization PEN America, in an interview.

"For these fields, this is a lifeline and, symbolically, this sends a very negative signal for what these communities can expect from the incoming administration," she added. "We’ll be mobilizing to make our voices heard and to petition members of Congress and elected officials to understand the importance of this funding."

The independent National Humanities Center hosts about 40 residential fellowships, three of which are financed by the NEH, in addition to public-engagement and education programs. As an example of the real-world impact of federal support, Mr. Newman highlighted one effort that is part of a broader NEH push to reach out to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We have a number of sessions where they’re reading literary texts that have to do with war and having to talk through those experiences," he said, describing a project that is intended to lessen the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The federal endowment’s agencywide "Standing Together" campaign, Mr. Newman said, does work to help returning veterans "heal and reacclimate in terms of being more positive and productive citizens after the experiences of war."

Pointing to previous defenses of the NEH and NEA, Mr. Newman said arts and humanities supporters will reach out "to arouse the general public as a whole into striking back to try to change this direction coming out of the incoming administration." The work of the two endowments, he said, is vital "so that we can have a better civilization."

Clarification (1/20/2017, 10:30 a.m.): This article has been updated to clarify that the independent National Humanities Center hosts about 40 residential fellowships, three of which are supported by the NEH.