What defunding the NEA would mean for US museums

The country's cultural institutions speak out about the importance of the National Endowment for the Arts, as President Trump's office drafts a new budget


As the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) faces an uncertain future, arts groups are bracing for the loss of federal grants that support hundreds of exhibitions, performances, residencies and local arts councils each year. Its fate could soon be decided: the South Carolina congressman Mick Mulvaney, known for his hard-line views against government spending, was narrowly confirmed to lead the Office of Management and Budget this month. President Trump is expected to submit his proposal for the federal budget in March, and nine agencies have been targeted for the chopping block, including the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and public television.

But what would this elimination actually mean for US museums and cultural institutions? The NEA’s $148m budget is minuscule compared to the $3.5 trillion spent by the government annually (it is even less than the estimated $183m it will cost New York's police department to protect the president's family at Trump Tower for one year) and most grants to individual organisations are small, $50,000 or less. Nevertheless, this money helped realise projects across the country in a range of disciplines this year, from a US tour of New York’s Alvin Ailey dance company ($100,000) to free public programmes at the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture and the Environment in the Chattahoochee Hills of Georgia ($10,000).

NEA grants help museums cover the myriad costs that accompany a show, such as shipping, insurance and publishing catalogues. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), for example, received $60,000 to support Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art since 1950 (5 March-21 May), organised with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

“It is not a stretch to say that the exhibition wouldn’t be happening without the NEA grant,” MFAH’s director, Gary Tinterow, says. “The agency is viewed as a critical source of funding for multi-stop collaborative exhibitions.”

“Many funders limit their support to specific uses, such as education programmes or artist fees, when the reality is that there are a range of costs that need to be covered," says Helena Nordstrom, a spokeswoman for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which received $60,000 for the De Young's leg of the travelling show Stuart Davis: In Full Swing (1 April-6 August).

The grants also help regional museums to bring over international scholars. The $45,000 the Denver Botanic Gardens received for an exhibition dedicated to Alexander Calder's monumental sculptures (28 April-24 September) “made it possible to work with our guest curator, Alfred Pacquement, the former director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Georges Pompidou", says Lisa Eldred, the gardens' director of exhibitions.

Writing in the New York Times, the Metropolitan Museum's Thomas Campbell points out that that NEA also helps cover one of the most expensive aspects of organising an exhibition: the insurance. The agency's federal indemnity programme lowers the costs of bringing works to the US from abroad, making major loan exhibitions possible, like one on Michelangelo coming to the Met this autumn.

Magnet for donors The cachet that comes with an NEA grant can also help museums attract additional funding. "It means the world’s foremost arts and culture experts support your work,” says Pam Marcil, a spokeswoman for the Detroit Institute of Arts, which got $55,000 to reinstall its Asian art galleries. “We leverage this when we seek funds from other individuals, corporations, foundations.”

“Donors recognise the imprimatur of NEA support,” says Kathryn Kanjo, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. “Over the past 50 years, these awards have formed a legacy of highly-vetted and thoughtfully researched programmes that connect audiences and foster creativity.” The San Diego museum received $35,000 to fund a forthcoming exhibition of Latin American artists, Memories of Underdevelopment (17 September-17 January 2018), organised with the Museo Jumex in Mexico City and the Museo de Arte de Lima as part of the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. The exhibition, which had already received $585,000 from the Getty Foundation, is one of three Pacific Standard Time shows to receive NEA grants, showing that every little bit counts.

Meanwhile, grants for the production of new work are not only a boon for cash-strapped alternative spaces, but also feed into the local economy. “Often people think that when you get a grant, it all goes into an artist’s pocket. But really it goes into the community: we buy lumber, we hire plumbers,” says Michael Olijnyk, the co-director of the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, which received $50,000 to support its 40th anniversary exhibition this year. “The artist gets a small honorarium—the rest is going into making the art.”

The NEA also serves as a stopgap during tough times. “It has been able to step in when other foundations have pulled back from gift-making,” says Tommy Napier, a spokesman for the Menil Collection in Texas, which received a $50,000 NEA Art Works grant to support the exhibition Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma. After the 2008 economic downturn, the NEA helped save at-risk jobs in the arts—including some at the Menil—through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

What would happen if NEA grants suddenly disappeared? “Without them, we will do less for our community,” Tinterow says. “It’s a simple relationship.” Eldred believes that if the NEA were eliminated, “a domino effect will be felt across the nation. Investing in the arts is exponential.”

Nordstrom notes that “arts councils that provide grants to organisations throughout their states would also find themselves with a smaller funding pool, further impacting access to culture on a local and regional level.” She also points out that the threat to the NEH is even more significant, since it awards fewer but much larger grants each year, such as the $400,000 it gave to the De Young's forthcoming exhibition Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire.

Barbara Luderowski, the co-director of the Mattress Factory, sees the NEA as the canary in the coal mine. “When you look at other countries that are struggling for their freedom, the first things that are attacked are the arts, poetry, culture. Artists are known to speak up, and an autocratic government doesn’t like that,” she says. “Cutting out the NEA, I would find that repressive.”