by David Moon
Fear that President Trump will eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has inspired a chorus of criticism around the country, including among my immediate family and closest friends. They argue that THE NEA is a tiny federal program that supports the cultural expression of what makes us human.
My wife and kids need not worry. The NEA is too politically useful to be abolished. But if it did suddenly vanish, the effect on funding the country’s artistic pursuits would be approximately zero.
The NEA’s $148 million budget is a rounding error within the federal government’s annual expenditures of $3.9 trillion. It is also a rounding error within the size of the arts industry.
Direct NEA grants total 0.006 percent of the country’s $1.1 trillion in annual spending on museums, galleries, children’s music programs, community theaters, operas, symphonies, ballet companies and similar endeavors.
Eliminating the NEA is equivalent of a person with $100,000 in annual income taking a six dollar pay cut.
Support for the NEA is not the same thing as support for arts. They are two different things, as evidenced by the trillion dollars of private money spent on arts each year.
Arts supporters are too often unaware that the NEA is not the lifeline for fledgling arts organizations. More than a third of NEA grants are to organizations with annual budgets exceeding $1.75 million. The largest geographic area receiving NEA dollars is New York City. Examples of recent NEA grant recipients include Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts (annual budget of $215 million; recent NEA grant of $60,000) and the Denver Botanic Gardens ($19 million annual budget, $24 million endowment; recent NEA grant of $45,000.)
The New York Museum of Modern Art has used tiny NEA grants to support more than a billion dollars in renovation projects since 2004.
The perverse irony is that many of the artists who passionately support the NEA don’t realize that the primary purpose of the NEA is not about art. The folks who work there may not even realize it, but the National Endowment for the Arts exists because it serves a very specific purpose for members of Congress: it is a tiny Congressional slush fund masquerading as cultural motherhood and apple pie. The NEA gives 435 politicians a little money to spread around their districts to curry favor for their next election or fundraiser.
The unassuming brilliance of the NEA’s survival is its irrelevance to the arts world. If the NEA is about art, this congress and president will abolish it. If the NEA exists for some less obvious purpose that suits the permanent political class, the NEA will still be here a year from now.
Expect it to be here. What might happen to the Museum of Modern Art without it?
David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN)