NEA Funding Becomes Lightning Rod in Stimulus Debate

NEA Funding Becomes Lightning Rod in Stimulus Debate
As the economic stimulus package makes its way through congress, the small portion dedicated to the arts has become a political lightning rod, leaving some arts advocates concerned the debate could deal a blow to support for public funding of the arts.

The $819 billion stimulus package that passed in the House of Representatives contains $50 million in funding for the National Endowment of the Arts, which would increase the agency’s current budget by 50 percent, according to a report in the Boston Globe. In the bill currently being debated in the Senate, however, there is no additional funding for the NEA. Should that version of the bill pass the upper chamber, the matter would then be decided by the House-Senate conference committee.

Although the $50 million in the House bill is a miniscule portion (.06 percent) of the overall stimulus package, as well as a small percentage of the several hundred million dollars requested by William Ivey, who was the leader of President Obama's transition team on arts-related spending and is a former NEA chairman, it has become a source of political controversy.

Eric Cantor of Virginia, a leader of the House Republicans, who voted unanimously against the stimulus bill, said the president needs to “get the pork-barrel spending out,” citing as an example $300,000 given last year to a sculpture garden by the NEA.

Jack Kingston, a Republican Representative from Georgia, advocated shifting the proposed NEA funding into highway construction. “We have real people out of work right now, and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that’s going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous,” he said, adding that he believes that all of the NEA’s funding needs to be examined.

It’s comments like these that have arts advocates worried about a return to the culture wars and bitter arts-funding debates of the 1990s, when the Republican-led House voted to abolish the NEA altogether. (The agency survived after an agreement was reached to slash its funding instead.)

Meanwhile, funding advocates say that there is historical precedence for the bolstered NEA, citing how President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted public works programs that employed artists, writers, painters, and photographers during the New Deal.

Dana Gioia, the NEA chairman under the Bush administration, recalled that when Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins was asked why the government should hire artists, he replied, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”

Gioia added, “As far as I’ve heard, nothing has changed about the dietary needs of artists.”