An obituary: The National Endowment for the Arts, 52, of unnatural causes

The National Endowment for the Arts, aged 52, has finally died. After brushes with extinction in the 1980’s and 1990’s, along with a three-decade wait to be launched after the McCarthy-era’s relentless attacks on artists, police are describing the NEA’s demise as “totally preventable, but oddly, both a homicide and a suicide.” The agency had been ill although determined to make a difference for many years.

The NEA expired under the care of President Donald Trump and the Tea Party Congress. It leaves as survivors its parent, the United States government. We are now the only country in the world without a federal arts presence. Other survivors include millions of artists and thousands of arts organizations. The NEA died because artists tried too hard to be “the other,” apart from the society they chronicled. It failed to make the case that the arts should mean more to ordinary Americans than whatever they did as children (overwhelmingly, Americans participate in the arts only when young). Late attempts at awkward medical procedures such as translating art into economic development did not improve the agency’s health.

The NEA will be remembered for its controversies, such as supporting artists who performed in the nude, or who explicitly sought to shock their audiences into facing hard truths of racism, sexism, the patriarchy, genocide, war and homophobia; for being unable to simultaneously fund the best American art while reaching every state; and for its political blunders, numerous and often naive.
But the NEA will also be remembered as the agency that created arts councils in every state and most cities; that spread the professionalization of arts organizations throughout America; and that generated important new fields, such as art therapy for war victims; creative place making and the rebirth of cities; research into economics, mental health, inequality and aging, among many; and whose leaders persuaded private funders of the value of artists and the arts.

Life without the NEA will not be a lot different than before. At its end, the agency was so small that the cost of one military jet equaled its entire grants budget. Few if any organizations will go out of business because of the loss of the NEA, though arts advocates have often asserted that NEA funding was the catalyst for vast amounts of additional private donations. Researchers will now have a perfect opportunity to ascertain finally what the financial impact of an NEA grant was on giving to the arts.

No artists will go broke without the NEA; at its demise, the agency offered direct support only to a handful of the nation’s writers. All other artists had been federal grant-free since the mid-1990s. Many artists of all disciplines, though, had been paid by organizations through NEA-funded projects, often the least commercial venture in a company’s annual season. It is likely that the work of artists, already governed almost entirely by the marketplace, might have to veer even more toward the commercial.

Government support for the arts will still exist, at least for a time. It will take a years to hunt down every federal dollar spent by housing, education, military, health and criminal justice agencies on artists whose work has meant so much to everyone from scientists to soldiers. It will take even longer for states to close their arts councils; none have done so permanently since the NEA began offering them matching funds in the late 1960s, though the virus that killed the NEA might spread to politically receptive states. That will, in turn, damage the arts on a local level and continue the lowering of respect and prestige that the sector has suffered since the NEA’s first illness thirty years ago.

The agency’s survivors inherit nothing except fifty years of cultural advancement of art forms and ideas. In the American tradition, they will have to make it on their own, and in some fashion, they probably will, though, like any survivor, they would have preferred not to have been left to fend for themselves. Burial was swift, though more people spoke at the funeral service than had openly supported the NEA when it was alive.

Michael Wilkerson is director of arts administration programs at Indiana University, teaches public policy and the arts.

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