Funding the arts in the United States

BUREAUCRACIES OFTEN SATISFY pragmatic requirements. The Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program, unlike other schemes for which the National Endowment for the Arts is responsible, does not attract a great deal of attention. It offers few opportunities for howls of outrage about degenerate art. Elected representatives, vigilant in condemning the wrong kind of government waste, ignore it. The Indemnity Program does its work quietly and extremely well. Since its inception in 1975, it has provided coverage for more than one thousand exhibitions in the United States. Without that coverage, which is currently capped at $1.8 billion for an exhibition involving international loans, the costs of commercial insurance might make impossible such exhibitions as, for example, Late Turner: Painting Set Free, on view in Los Angeles and San Francsisco in 2015;1 and the current Glory of Venice: Renaissance Paintings 1470–1520, at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh (to 18th June). The Program has settled slightly more than $100,000 in claims in its entire history, in part because coverage comes with high deductibles. It costs less than 0.1 percent of the NEA’s current annual budget of just under $148 million to administer and has one full-time employee to oversee the entire process.

The Indemnity Program, along with the rest of the NEA, may soon cease to exist. On 16th March, the President of the United States released his budget blueprint for 2018. He proposes extensive cuts to non-military discretionary spending, including reductions of 28.7 per cent at the Department of State and 31.4 per cent at the Environmental Protection Agency, in order to pay for a ten per cent increase for the Department of Defense. Funding for nineteen independent agencies, including the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities, would vanish.

The demise of the NEA has been a goal for some Republicans since before Ronald Reagan took office as president in 1981. Republicans in Congress, who will ultimately decide what kind of budget gets passed, include many vehement opponents of the NEA. Any attempt to keep the NEA alive, let alone adequately nourished, must recognise a political reality that has little to do with meritorious arguments. If it did, the economic argument alone would prevail: each dollar of federal funding brings an additional nine dollars from public and private sources. That money often benefits hard-pressed locales across the country. Opposition to the NEA, however, is a potent gesture of defiance against a cultural perspective towards which the new Administration and its avid supporters are proudly antagonistic. No explanation of economic or indeed civic benefits is adequate. The current Administration is unlikely to be swayed by facts or evidence, let alone by appeals based upon an existing consensus. Should the NEA survive, it will be because it is not expedient – perhaps after acute local opposition in key congressional districts – to let it die. Whether or not the NEA survives, it is imperative that the Indemnity Program continues in some form.

It is despicable for the government of an advanced nation to abolish its successful cultural programmes out of simple spite. The plight of the NEA is merely one aspect of an evolving and profoundly unstable landscape in which those involved in the arts must decide how best to proceed. Last year, the electorate in the United States – as in Britain – significantly disrupted the equipoise of domestic government and international relations. The United States is a less open, less predictable and less trusted country than it was a year ago. Curators and scholars depend on freedom of expression, freedom to pursue research, a secure place in civil society and international co-operation based on mutual trust and respect. They thrive on deliberation and patience. Like the intelligence agencies, their work requires skilful analysis and respect for facts: those qualities are ill-suited to the prevailing climate. It is, therefore, vital to understand – and to be willing to use – the mechanisms of civil society that most effectively hold power in check. Public and private entities might find it necessary to defend vigorously their funding, their collections and their rights to speak freely, through the courts if necessary.

There is plenty of pessimism regarding the institutions and principles that underpin creative and scholarly work. That said, opportunities are likely to emerge if the federal government retreats from its apparent commitment to destroy American cultural life. Although the NEA has mostly refrained from attempting to impose any particular notion of ‘Americanness’, it is easy to imagine that the current Administration might like to do precisely that. The Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program requires that international exhibitions ‘be certified by the Secretary of State as being in the national interest’. That phrase can be a bland reassurance or an instrument of ideological warfare. The weakened condition of the State Department will be of particular concern to anyone with an interest in American diplomacy, which remains a crucial factor in the reputation of the United States among allies and critics alike. This is the moment for museums and similar institutions to assert, clearly and without qualification, the enduring value of artistic and scholarly achievement in an era plagued by hooliganism and deceit in the public domain.

The NEA and the NEH have helped to establish a vibrant cultural life throughout the United States, and even beyond its borders. They have supported experimental and traditional projects that do not merely reflect American culture, but to a great extent define it. It is a tribute to their success that their opponents have one weapon left: starvation of funds. Political winds, however, blow in all directions. When the dust settles, advocates for the arts will need clear arguments, sound policies and effective networks of influence. Concrete examples of good and wise government work, such as the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program, will be invaluable when the United States decides once again that it deserves better.

1 The exhibition was reviewed by Christopher Baker at its first venue, Tate Britain, London, in this Magazine, 156 (2014), pp.829–30.