Trump team's plans for major cuts to cultural funding has arts leaders worried

Kenyan artist Evans Yegon carrying one of his painting of US President-elect Donald Trump past the current President Barack Obama at his workshop.
Kenyan artist Evans Yegon carrying one of his painting of US President-elect Donald Trump past the current President Barack Obama at his workshop.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - A published report that members of the Trump administration are considering sweeping budget cuts that include eliminating cultural agencies have left some arts leaders with a strong feeling of déjà vu.

The report in The Hill notes staff members have been meeting with their White House peers to discuss a spending plan that would seek major cuts to the departments of Commerce, Transportation, Justice and State, cutting US$10.5 trillion (S$14.98 trillion) over 10 years.

Eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities would cut US$296 million from the federal government's almost US$4 trillion budget, saving taxpayers little but sending a symbolic message about the importance of small government.

"These are old ideas, some more than a decade old," said Americans for the Arts president and CEO Robert Lynch. "We take it seriously, but there's a budget process and a lot of points of intersection."

US Representative Nancy Slaughter, a New York Democrat and co-chair of the Congressional Arts Caucus, said proposals to eliminate the independent agencies don't make fiscal sense.

"Every dollar the NEA spends, we get back US$9 or US$10 to the Treasury," said Ms Slaughter. "It's penny wise and pound foolish."

Critics don't realise the important work the NEA does with students and with veterans, Ms Slaughter said, citing as an example the NEA's Military Healing Arts Network, which brings arts to Walter Reed.

"These new treatments have discovered that they respond to music and yoga and painting. We help give them back their lives, as best we can. It's priceless and it doesn't cost very much."

Mr Lynch said the cultural agencies aren't the same as they were when these attacks were first launched.

President Ronald Reagan thought eliminating the cultural agencies was worth considering, but he changed his mind, becoming a staunch advocate, Mr Lynch said. "And a number of years later, the Gingrich Congress wanted them eliminated. In both cases, Republicans turned it back."

The NEA provides grants to arts organisations, education programmes and community initiatives in all disciplines and in communities across the country. It is currently led by Chairwoman Jane Chu, and its 2016 budget was US$148 million.

In an e-mail, a spokesman said the agency "is not speculating on what policies or decisions the new administration may or may not choose to prioritise or pursue".

The NEH supports the humanities and history through grants to authors, museums, libraries and a host of other organisations. Like the NEA, it was founded in 1965 and its 2016 budget was US$148 million. "We are not going to speculate on the policies or priorities of the new administration," a spokesman said.

Mr Lynch said the arts community needs to share the details of the successes of the cultural agencies, as well as their economic muscle. The cultural sector is a US$704 billion industry that accounts for 4.2 per cent of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), more than tourism, he said.

"The NEA is different today. It does work for veterans and the military, benefits the economy and job development and community development," he said. "We need to put these facts in front of the decision makers."

Ms Slaughter added that the arts industry needs to be vigilant. "I remember (the call) to get rid of Big Bird. That didn't work," she said, referring to earlier attempts to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an agency with a US$445 million budget that Trump representatives are suggesting be privatised.

"We have a great arts caucus in the House, and we've beaten back some of these things before. We need to be on the alert."