Federal arts funding is on the White House’s hit list

If culture agencies dodge the fatal bullet, they should focus on collection-sharing and investment in bricks and mortar


Federal arts funding, ignored by Democrats and Republicans during the presidential campaign, is finally getting attention. America’s cultural agencies, including the two national endowments, for the arts (NEA) and for the humanities (NEH), are operating on money appropriated until April. There is much talk that the next omnibus budget bill will provide no money for these agencies, essentially closing them.

This would throw the baby out with the bath water. The culture agencies do plenty of fine work. Yet for many reasons, good and bad, they are a target. Having been badly burned in the 1980s and 1990s, they avoid the most incendiary projects about sexuality or faith. If anything, in the past few years, they have worked quietly and deliberately, as if tip-toeing around controversy but also around big new ideas.

This might be part of their problem. The money doesn’t seem to make big, promising things happen, things that would not happen otherwise. Looking at their list of grants, their main goal seems to be survival. They have been so beleaguered over the years, so pummelled, that their mission each year is to dodge the fatal bullet.

I suspect the agencies will emerge from the April budget fight with dramatically reduced budgets and possibly with a mission better aligned with Washington’s new order. Here are some basic ways to help these agencies both to stay alive and relevant and to achieve focused and better results.

Let’s start with quality. The first things to go should be projects in which the principal goal is to feed the beast of racial, gender or class dogma, regardless of whether the art is, well, any good. Art has to be of the highest quality. That means intellectual rigour and a curiosity and openness about different points of view. It also means far fewer shows anchored in identity. Political fads aren’t facts and they’re not good scholarship.

I would create a new focus for cultural grants on arts infrastructure. I know fundraising for renovations is difficult, but the lack of bricks-and-mortar essentials seriously hinders any organisation, regardless of creative vision or ambition. A big priority of the new administration is infrastructure, and better arts infrastructure is a good philosophical fit. I’m a big believer in matching grant programmes with governmental cultural support, leveraging private support to get basic infrastructure improvements done rather than deferred.

I was a curator and directed a distinguished museum, the Addison Gallery, dedicated to American art through the centuries. It’s the art of our country. It does make sense to make American culture first among equals in getting federal help. In the museum world, there are few institutional funders solely dedicated to American art, so I know that the need is there and often unmet.

Serious collection-sharing will never happen without a federal push. Big, encyclopaedic museums in places like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston have thousands of objects in their vaults, many great but rarely seen. Long-term loans—without expensive loan fees—to good museums throughout the country, in places that have never had the money or collector base to generate great permanent collections, is a solid goal that the NEA can achieve. The big museums will hate the idea. We’ll hear cries of: “Too much work” and “Why should we send our things to Milwaukee or Phoenix or somewhere in Alabama?” Well, why should great art sit in storage when it could be seen by millions in places not blessed with historic wealth?

Savvy and entrepreneurial thinking at federal level can do much to promote collaborations among arts organisations. The federal culture agencies can help them to connect the dots where partnerships are possible, here and abroad. French and American regional museums have collaborated on collection- and idea-sharing for years. Partnerships among American and Italian or Spanish or Indian museums and other arts organisations can and should happen, but probably will not without the brokering or networking role that only federal leadership can provide.

Longer-term, there are many federal agencies supporting culture. Many do similar things and each has its own back-of-house and compliance bureaucracy. It’s not unusual for arts organisations to apply for money from multiple agencies for the same project.

The State Department has a cultural and educational outreach department that, in my experience­—and putting it diplomatically—vastly underperforms. The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian support arts organisations with money. Consolidating and focusing these many agencies would liberate money to go directly to needy and worthy organisations.

I think it’s a bad idea to throw in the towel on federal arts funding. There’s a new sheriff in town. Lots of talk about “resistance” might make for noble feelings, but it won’t prevent the federal culture agencies from becoming the earliest casualties in the war.

Brian Allen is the former director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts