Part of the argument against closing the Kunststiftung has always been based on the fact that culture is an economic engine and that the NEA is hardly expensive, according to federal authorities. The budget of $ 167.5 million for 2021 is still no more than what one city, New York, spends on its cultural affairs. The number has increased by about $ 17 million since 2017, but is still dwarfed by cultural budgets in European countries where funding the arts is seen as a government function. For example, the UK’s Department of Culture has spent more than $ 1 billion annually on art for years.
Yet for many in the world of culture, the foundation’s symbolic value should not be underestimated. The foundation was established in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a law declaring that the arts and humanities belong to all. It is based on the belief that the arts play a role in the mental and economic health of the nation and deserve government support.
The individual grants are relatively small in a culture industry that does not rely primarily on government support, but on ticketing and private donations for financing. Even so, the agency’s defenders see the federal government’s role in supporting the arts, awarding coveted honors, and awarding grants as sustainable, and smaller organizations whose ability to attract key donors for help are looking at financial aid of any size often considered essential.
But the foundation has long been in the crosshairs of Republicans as a symbol of lavish liberal generosity. When President Trump took power, experts feared he would resume a culture war in which his successor Joe Biden took part three decades ago. The first and each subsequent Trump budget included cutting funding for the arts agency, as well as the National Humanities Foundation and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports public television and broadcasters across the country.
This was reminiscent of the struggle in the 1990s when conservatives argued that the agency served a narrow audience, ignored Central America, pushed a left, elitist agenda, and funded projects that were offensive, silly, or even obscene. Donations to Karen Finley, a provocative performance artist who smeared chocolate and yams all over her naked body, outraged some conservative members of Congress.