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House Republicans unveil plan to end federal arts and humanities agencies and aid to public broadcasting

January 20, 2011 |  8:20 pm

 
USCapitol Federal support for arts and culture is now officially in the cross hairs of congressional Republicans, if that's a metaphor we're still allowed to use.

Any way you want to describe it, the Republican Study Committee, made up of about 165 GOP members of the House of Representatives, on Thursday announced a budget-cutting plan aimed at slashing federal spending, and it calls for the elimination of the nation's two leading makers of government arts grants: the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Also on the chopping block is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The arts and humanities endowments each get $167.5 million a year; the broadcasting agency, which supports public radio and television, gets $445 million.

The NEA last had to fight for its survival in 1995, when Republicans gained control of the House and Senate and sought to get rid of the endowment. It had outraged some conservatives with grants that in certain highly publicized cases had supported performances or exhibitions they deemed offensive. While the NEA survived, It took a 39% budget cut and saw the elimination of nearly all grants to individual artists. Despite increases over the past 10 years, the NEA's inflation-adjusted buying power remains $58 million a year less than it was before those mid-'90s "culture wars."

This time, the ax would fall on the agencies as part of a bid to reduce the federal deficit. The bill, called the Spending Reduction Act of 2011, aims to reduce federal spending by $2.5 trillion over 10 years. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), chairman of the Republican Senate Steering Committee, also backs the plan.

Federal arts and culture spending is currently about $1.6 billion a year, not counting construction budgets. The legislation does not call for cuts to the annual budgets for the Smithsonian Institution ($761.4 million), the Institute of Museum and Library Services ($282.3 million), the National Gallery of Art ($167 million) or the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (about $20 million).

All those organizations except the IMLS offer performances and exhibitions -- free, in the case of the Smithsonian's museums and the National Gallery -- that might be seen as a perk of living in Washington, D.C.; grants from the NEA and NEH are national in scope.

Culture Monster is momentarily incapable of doing the math to figure out what percentage $7.8 billion (10 years' savings from NEA, NEH and Corporation for Public Broadcasting) is of $2.5 trillion, but our sense is that it's fairly small.

The NEA provides $1 million a year for California's state arts agency, the California Arts Council, about 20% of its $5.3 million budget.

In an interview Wednesday, before the GOP plan had come out, Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a leading advocacy group for government funding of the arts, had said arts supporters "are cognizant of the attitudes out there among some leaders, and we have to do a good job of education."

A key argument, Lynch said, is that the government's existing arts-funding model follows conservative budgetary principles: A small federal investment that's important to the health of the nonprofit arts sector helps sustain its 5.7 million jobs and the $30 billion in annual returns to federal, state and local coffers that those workers pay in taxes.

-- Mike Boehm

 

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