What Could Happen If Trump Defunds National Endowment for the Arts? Experts Weigh In

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President Donald Trump at the White House on Jan. 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. 

Amid bitter divisions surrounding President Donald Trump’s immigration ban, changes to the National Security Council and firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates, Trump’s reported plan to defund the National Endowment for the Arts is opening a festering wound in many music circles.

“We are once again at a crossroads where music and arts education in our school systems are being threatened by severe cuts. Possible defunding of the NEA would not only be devastating to the arts community at large, but also to the youth of this country,” Linda Moran, president/CEO of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, tells Billboard.

“Music and arts are essential to life and our humanity and in the nurturing of our souls. Removing access to that which allows the exploration, discovery and development of one’s talents would be a travesty of epic proportions,” Moran adds. “Our future songwriters, musicians and artists must be fostered, not ignored.”

Potentially headed to the chopping block along with the NEA are the National Endowment for Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The move would be consistent with longstanding pressure from conservative critics of public arts funding, and it unsurprisingly has provoked renewed outcry from organizations including the American Alliance of Museums, Americans for the Arts and PEN America.

One person who would seem to have Trump’s respect spoke out publicly in favor of continuing federal funding of the arts: “An artless nation is a spiritless nation, which is detrimental to the wisdom required for int'l diplomacy and govt. I encourage @POTUS to continue funding the @NEAarts and @NEHgov so we may represent the great American spirit abroad in the years to come,” said Rex Tillerson -- the former ExxonMobil CEO who was just confirmed to serve as Secretary of State -- in a Jan. 27 tweet.

Considering the magnitude of the budget cuts Trump is proposing, the NEA would seem to be small fry. The endowment’s budget for fiscal 2016 was $148 million, representing 0.00004 percent of the overall $3.9 trillion federal budget in 2016. That breaks down to an annual cost of 46 cents per U.S. citizen per year. For some perspective, that’s about the price of a quarter of a gallon of unleaded gas today. For more perspective, the Canada Council for the Arts’ budget exceeds our $148 million at $180 million annually, even though our population is nearly nine times theirs -- and the council has plans to double the figure by 2021.

“Because it’s such a small amount of money, it’s almost like, 'Why are you picking on the little guy -- a little guy who’s really important?'” asks singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson, in whom arts appreciation runs deep. Michaelson’s father was a composer and her mother was a sculptor and a champion of the Staten Island Museum. “He’s the antithesis of an artist. He said Hamilton was overrated. That alone to me is a sign of someone who is not in tune with his artistic self.”

Created in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, the NEA since has awarded thousands of grants for orchestras, jazz ensembles, operas and chamber music groups, among other arts beneficiaries. A survey of NEA-funded activations from last year turns up video footage of David Bowie discussing his collaborations with Lou Reed, and a tribute to Quincy Jones at the Monterey Jazz Festival. The endowment also funds the annual All NEA Jazz Masters and All NEA Opera Honors.

“The NEA provides highly needed resources to low-income, urban, and rural communities in all 50 states, where funding for the arts is scarce,” says Liz Janneman, EVP, network strategy, at arts network Ovation, whose partners include recent NEA grant recipient the LA County Arts Commission: Arts for All Initiative. “Furthermore, the NEA provides seed money for projects that wouldn’t otherwise get off the ground without initial funding.”

“Music and the arts is where we get to learn about beauty and aesthetics. Without that, I can’t imagine what that place looks like,” says Michaelson, who’s been involved with VH1 Save the Music Foundation. She, like some other music artists, has found her focus being pulled in myriad directions since Jan. 20.

“Right now it feels like we’re drowning in one terrible thing after another,” she says. “I read online if you’re feeling helpless, choose one or two things that you can help with.” Immediately after the election, she designed her “use your heart” t-shirt, proceeds from which go to the Trevor Project, an organization designed to protect LGBTQ youth.

“NEA defunding, to me, is terrifying. And I use that word as strongly as I can,” says T. Andre Feagin, a music professor at Coastal Carolina University and a conductor working with the National Association for Music Education. “There’s been a continued effort to defund music programs. Are we moving toward a society that doesn’t promote and appreciate and respect these artistic idioms that define who we are as a people? That’s what scares me the most.”

Janneman warns of a potential insult to injury, should funding be cut. “Any time funding for the arts is threatened, there is a ripple effect on local communities. Anything not considered a safety net -- i.e. the arts -- loses footing, and philanthropy follows: private donations and funding decrease as well,” she tells Billboard. “Losing NEA support of community-based organizations and arts nonprofits hurts local businesses, schools, cultural institutions, and afterschool programs.”