Cultural policy USA

Obama signs Recovery and Reinvestment Act with reinstated support for the arts

Bailout benefits NEA and Smithsonian

NEW YORK. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Smithsonian Institution have secured a small allotment of federal funding as part of the $787bn American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by President Obama on 17 February, following fears that arts groups would be completely excluded from the stimulus package. A committee comprising members of both houses of Congress reached an agreement on the final spending bill, which was notably smaller than the versions passed by either the House or the Senate, with a number of cuts made to education and health programmes to secure the sliver of Republican support needed (three votes) to pass the bill. The NEA will receive $50m to distribute to non-profit arts organisations while the Smithsonian gets $25m to repair its facilities.

Although the original bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives, contained $50m for the National Endowment of the Arts, the version that went through the Senate had completely removed such funding. It also included an amendment by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn that would prevent museums, theatres and art centres from receiving any stimulus money by grouping them with other projects considered “wasteful and non-stimulative” such as casinos and highway beautification. Senator Coburn’s amendment was passed by the Senate and is still in the final bill, but the mention of museums, theatres and art centres was removed and now only excludes “any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, or swimming pool”.

When the House voted on the final bill, Democratic Congressman David Obey, who sponsored the bill, explained why he thought it was important to retain NEA funding in the stimulus package: “There are five million people who work in the arts industry. And right now they have 12.5% unemployment—or are you suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance? We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.”

Following the House’s passing of the final bill, the NEA released a statement describing its plans for the stimulus money. According to this, the agency “will make awards that result in job retention… For example, by awarding grants to arts education programmes, the NEA can help grantees employ teaching artists and administrators. Through grants to art festivals, the NEA can help the festival employ staff to manage the event and artists to perform or exhibit there. By funding new productions, the NEA can help an arts organisation provide work for carpenters, electricians, caterers, ushers, custodians, lighting designers, seamstresses, parking attendants and others as well as artists.”

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian’s funding was cut down from $150m in the House’s original version of the bill to $25m in the final package. A spokeswoman for the Institution said: “We’re delighted that the museum has received this funding. The Smithsonian certainly has infrastructural needs that we have every year and this will help in addressing those. We have a list of projects that need funding and we’re going to figure out which ones need the most urgent attention. We’re also going to look at which will help to create new jobs as that is the point of the whole stimulus package.”

Some of the most vocal critics of the arts receiving stimulus funds came from senior Republicans such as Arizona Senator John McCain, who singled out funds allotted to the NEA and the Smithsonian Institution as among the “hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary spending that will not do anything to stimulate the economy”. He went on to ask “how giving tens of millions of dollars to the National Endowment of the Arts or the Smithsonian Museum will reverse the devastating effects of the economic crisis?”

In response to the threat to arts funding, advocacy groups such as Americans for the Arts and the American Association of Museums lobbied senators to oppose the bill, citing the economic benefits of supporting cultural organisations.

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