As I write, one of the main art stories coming out of the United States is that the Trump administration's first federal budget plan, which indicates eliminating several federal cultural agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
The NEA and NEH were signed into existence in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act states:
(3) An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.
(4) Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.
This is not the first time a Republican government has threatened cuts to, or elimination of, the endowments. It is the first time a Republican government has been in such a strong position to enact these threats. While the administration's budget plan is a signal of presidential priorities and not a draft of the actual budget (which is written by Congress), arts advocates in the U.S. had already prepared their arguments in defence of the NEA, NEH and other agencies such as the Public Broadcasting Service, noting that much of the funding supports communities outside the main artistic centres; that programmes range from art therapy for military veterans to the cataloguing of George Washington's papers; that the average NEA grant is $26,000 and requires matched funding to be secured by the applicant.
As the San Francisco Chronicle reported in March, one of the programmes threatened by the Trump budget plan is the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program, created by President Gerald Ford in 1975 with bipartisan support. The programme enables federal indemnification of insurance on artworks brought into the US for public exhibitions. No money changes hands, but the government pledges to cover any losses. This allows museums to save money on insurance premiums; money that can then be used elsewhere. Outgoing director of The Met Thomas P. Campbell wrote in The New York Times that their upcoming Michelangelo show has an insurance value of $2.4 billion; an amount not even they, one of the richest museums in the world, could afford. The programme underwrites billions of dollars in indemnifications annually, and in 41 years of operation has paid out a single claim of $4,700.
The proportion of the federal budget allocated to the NEA and NEH is approximately 0.01%. As Neil deGrasse Tyson observed in a series of tweets, this equates to Americans' annual expenditure on lipbalm, or 4 hours and 23 minutes of defence spending. As he noted: "Cutting the NEA & NEH to save money on a $3-trillion budget is like thinking 3 days is long relative to an 85-year lifespan."
The cuts then are symbolic, not functional. In turn, museums are staging their own symbolic retorts. They have responded in many ways to the new administration, particularly its January 27 executive order banning entry to the US from seven majority-Muslim nations. In perhaps the most publicised riposte, MoMA rehung its collection galleries overnight, replacing works by Matisse and Picasso with works by artists including Sudanese painter Ibrahim el-Salahi and Los Angeles-based Iranian video artist Tala Madani. Each has a new wall label:
“This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on Jan. 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed ... to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States.”
I follow a US analyst, Colleen Dilenschneider, who works for market research firm specialising in cultural organisations. In March Dilenschneider reported a notable reputational boost for MoMA since the start of 2017, based on an increase in positive responses to statements like 'I admire the Museum of Modern Art'. As Dilenschneider observed, this is correlation, not causation, and yet 'What else could have taken place in the same duration to cause the greatest increase in reputational equities in the last three years for MoMA?'.
So, symbols speak strongly. That the Trump administration can advocate slashing cultural funding agencies suggests a deep disdain for the place of art, artists and art institutions in society. We can only hope that this message too can be turned upon itself, and used to argue for art's utmost relevance.