Back in the Culture Wars

On the potential defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts

by Ryan Rosenberg & Will Weatherly

Illustration by Claire Schlaikjer

published February 3, 2017

Less than 24 hours before Inauguration Day, an unnamed source told The Hill that Donald Trump’s transition team had already been busy drafting a budget proposal with slashes to federal discretionary spending in line with Trump’s aggressively conservative policy priorities. In addition to eliminating programs in the Departments of Energy, Commerce, and Justice, the proposal called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). A former staffer at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that helped the Trump team draft the proposal, told The Hill that “targeting waste like the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be a good first step in showing that the Trump Administration is serious about radically reforming the federal budget.”

Despite the foundation’s assertion, cuts to arts programs would not demonstrate much reformation of the total amount of federal spending. In 2015, the NEA received  $148 million in federal funding, a fraction of a percent of the $3.899 trillion federal budget. The value of American arts programming transcends its proven economic returns. Additionally, critiques of the NEA have often focused on discounting the organization’s nonmonetary merit. The foundation’s justification for the NEA’s elimination is based more in an evaluation of its cultural value as ‘waste’ rather than any demonstrated evidence of wasteful spending. In 1997, Heritage published “Ten Good Reasons” to defund the organization, citing the NEA’s donations to “multimillion-dollar arts organizations,” which already draw large amounts of private fundraising. This selectively discounts the fact that 40 percent of the NEA’s budget goes to state and regional arts councils for the funding of smaller, local projects. The Foundation argued that the NEA “will continue to fund pornography” due to its support of sexually explicit work, but that the agency simultaneously “promotes politically correct art” due to the organization’s priority of highlighting multiculturalism.

It is difficult to determine whether Trump shares these critiques in full; he was rumored to have been eyeing Sylvester Stallone for leadership of the NEA late last year, a prospect which the former Rocky star declined. In adopting the Foundation’s budget proposal, however, Trump is using the gains of a political project that for decades has developed an approach parallel to his own: reactionaries publicly discrediting those artists who rely on the NEA and obfuscating who those artists truly are.




The National Endowment for the Arts was established by the United States Congress and president Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. As the organization grew, projects like the Laboratory Theater Project, which intended to support drama programs in high schools and allow professional theater companies to perform, were developed. In 1967, Providence was one of the program’s pilot cities. The NEA, however, was scrutinized by members of Congress who questioned the quality of the artforms funded by the organization. Representative John M. Ashbrook (R-OH) worried in 1968 that the NEA would “reward the avant-garde artists and discourage the traditional artists.” Outrage ensued over a $750 grant awarded to the 199th issue of American Literary Anthology, in which editor George Plimpton featured a piece by concrete poet Aram Saroyan, which read, “lighght.” At around the same time, Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, once a big proponent of the NEA, expressed concern over the abstract art favored by the organization, wondering whether it consisted merely “of doodles and swirls.” 

In the ’80s, similar doubts about the NEA’s role surfaced as Ronald Reagan attempted, and failed, to eradicate it. Two controversial projects funded by the NEA again put the organization under conservative scrutiny, christening the polarization that would become known as the ‘Culture Wars’ of the late ’80s and early ’90s. One such project was a photograph titled Piss-Christ by Andres Serrano, depicting a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. Serrano received death threats and hate mail as a result of the image, as did museum and gallery curators who showed the piece. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association called the piece “anti-Christian Bigotry.” Similarly, a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs titled The Perfect Moment received severe backlash. Just a few months after Mapplethorpe’s death from complications of AIDS, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. refused to display the homoerotic exhibit, prompting protests in D.C.

In 1990, four performance artists, John Fleck, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, and Karen Finley, applied for NEA grants that were vetoed due to the subject matter of the proposed projects. The artists sued the NEA in the Supreme Court case National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley. The artists, who became known as the NEA Four, won the case and were awarded the original amount of money for which they applied. Congressional backlash against the settlement pushed the passage of a mandate barring the NEA from funding individual artists, fundamentally altering the agency’s relationship to the material it supported. Today, the Old Post Office Pavilion in D.C., which once housed the NEA’s headquarters, has been re-developed into a Trump International Hotel. 




The NEA Four case firmly put to rest any possibility for the organization to function like conservative critics’ pornographic, elitist straw man. Jane Alexander, former president Clinton’s appointee to lead the NEA, pushed the organization from funding individual artists to prioritizing funds for nonprofits, with the aim of “extend[ing] the arts to underserved populations—those whose opportunities to experience the arts are limited by geography, ethnicity, economics, or disability,” as the mission statement for its Arts Works grant program outlines. It works to do this through a number of internal mechanisms: it requires state and regional arts councils to assess the needs of its region according to categories set by the NEA, and it provides federal support for these councils through block grants with the stipulation that a proportion of the funds be targeted towards art education and arts programs in marginalized communities. 

Randall Rosenbaum, executive director at the Rhode Island State Council of the Arts (RISCA), told the Independent that NEA funds were often central to his organization’s efforts to support those priorities with methods based on the specific needs of Rhode Islanders. The NEA serves as a model for RISCA’s peer-review process, which determines the allocation of grants directly to programs run by local nonprofit agencies. “Those direct grants are a great opportunity for local arts organizations to identify themselves what they can do to serve the needs of their community,” he said. Rosenbaum highlighted the NEA’s encouragement of local arts education programs like New Urban Arts in Providence and the Pawtucket Urban Music Project as landmarks of the NEA’s ability to have a local impact; arts education programs in Rhode Island have received more awards from Michelle Obama’s National Youth Arts and Humanities Program than those in any other state.

Providence arts initiative AS220 has repeatedly received NEA funding for AS220 Youth, a free-of-charge after school arts education program for local at-risk youth and incarcerated teenagers at the Rhode Island Training School. AS220 communications director David Dvorchak told the Independent that his organization aims to make these programs self-sustaining models, and that AS220 Youth is central to its mission of serving local young people of color, so that AS220 has both the means and the drive to continue its programming with or without federal funding. But, he said, “AS220 can’t do it all. It’s incredible that Providence has such a good number of youth arts programs in addition to our youth program. [AS220 Youth] operates at a max capacity all the time; there’s a waiting list to get in. These other organizations being able to operate and being supported by the NEA is a major benefit to the city and to the state.”  

Patricia C. Phillips, a curator and critic who writes about contemporary art, architecture, and design, was the Interim Associate Provost at RISD when the NEA awarded Providence an “Our Town” grant in 2011. Phillips helped facilitate a RISD course in which students developed public art project proposals funded by the grant in an effort to revitalize Kennedy Plaza. While the grant’s mission was controversial, problematizing questions of how the Plaza would continue to serve people who rely on public transportation, Phillips told the Independent that the project helped “animate and activate a public space, and engage people in a dialogue about what public life means and what public space represents.” 

Visit, and a list of hundreds of similar programs across the country will fall across your screen; designed by environmental engineer Tega Brain following the Hill’s report, the website shows users the sheer multitude and variety of arts programming the NEA funded last year alone. The site serves as an accurate demonstration of what the NEA has come to represent: an agency that strives to serve every state, and that attempts to make access to art more egalitarian and unifying. 

According to a retrospective of the NEA published on their website, former President Richard Nixon favored this harmonizing quality by supporting the organization during the politically divisive Vietnam War. “The president wanted for his own an issue that would not divide his audience into sympathetic hawks and hostile doves,” the NEA wrote. By relying on decades-old polarized rhetoric, the 45th president has already lost that potential for unity. 


RYAN ROSENBERG B’17 and WILL WEATHERLY B’19 wish our elected officials would see the lighght.