There’s a picture book that’s been around for a long time. The Little Engine that Could is a story about hope and determination, two character traits essential to any aspiring artist. It retails for about $5. The U.S. Government has been around even longer, and it costs a mind-boggling $3.899 trillion to keep the wheels turning. The National Endowment for the Arts is like the little engine that could. It does a whole lot with very little–$148 million last year. That’s just 0.01 percent of the entire federal budget. Imagine a network of railroad tracks criss-crossing the country. The NEA would be the equivalent of a single piece of railroad track. You couldn’t see it from the air, but its existence is essential to the trains passing over it.
If Congress approves President Trump’s proposed budget, the NEA will be yanked from the tracks. Trump isn’t the first president–or politician–who’s tried to do this. The reason others have failed can be tied to the agency’s success stories, both big and small. They began the same year President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the NEA into existence:
- In 1965, the American Ballet Theatre, founded in 1939, was about to go under. The brand new NEA made its first grant–a check for $100,000–and the doors stayed opened and the dancers kept dancing. The ABT is based in New York City in the prestigious Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, but it tours nationally every year: 450,000 people get to see its performances.
- In 1976, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion got a jump start from the NEA. This nationally syndicated radio variety show is still enchanting listeners and even inspired a movie starring Meryl Streep.
- Over the years, the NEA has given grants to promising novelists who went on to win major awards for later novels. In 1970, Alice Walker received a grant to help fund work on her first novel. Ten years later she wrote The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a Spielberg movie starring Oprah Winfrey. In 1993, after Jeffrey Eugenides wrote his acclaimed debut novel The Virgin Suicides, he received a fellowship that helped fund work on his next novel. Middlesex took him nine years to write/research, and it won the Pulitzer in 2003. Michael Cunningham completed his first novel in 1990 with help from the NEA. Eight years later he wrote The Hours, which won a Pulitzer and was turned into an Academy Award-winning movie.
- In 1980, the group that organized the Vietnam Veterans Memorial fund was in need of a monument designer. The group turned to the NEA, which funded a national competition to find one. The iconic black wall was completed by Maya Lin in 1982 and is one of the most popular memorials in Washington, D.C.
- In 1981, Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute was born with support from the NEA. What began as a small workshop for filmmakers and artists evolved into Sundance, the biggest regional film festival in America. It’s launched careers (Quentin Tarantino) and Academy-Award nominated movies like Manchester-by-the-Sea. While the film lost out for Best Picture this year, Casey Affleck took home Best Actor.
- Before the mega-successful Hamilton made it to Off-Broadway and then Broadway in 2015, The Hamilton Mixtape, as it was first called, was looking for an audience–and some feedback. In 2013, it was selected by a N.Y. theater workshop, the Powerhouse Theater Season, which was partly funded that year by a grant from the NEA.
While there are other big success stories tied to the NEA, its main purpose is something different–and extraordinary. It provides funding to communities in all 50 states and 5 U.S. jurisdictions. It does what nobody else in the U.S. does, in either the public or private sector. Big cities like New York, Chicago and L.A., to name just a few, have wealthy residents who help fund the major art institutions they patronize with big checks. In rural areas or poverty-stricken inner cities, that’s not often the case. The NEA helps keep the arts alive in these underserved areas. And why is that important?
Here’s a different kind of story. The Laramie Project is a play created by a small theatre company in NYC that has received NEA support. In 1998, five weeks after the murder of gay university student Matthew Shepard, members of the Tectonic Theater Company travelled to Laramie, Wyoming, and began interviewing people about their reactions to the murder: Matthew was kidnapped and severely beaten, his battered body tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie and left to die. First performed in 2000, The Laramie Project has become one of the most frequently performed plays in the U.S.
“The Laramie Project is a breathtaking collage that explores the depth to which humanity can sink and the heights of compassion of which we are capable.” The Associated Press
In 2002, The Laramie Project was made into a film that opened the Sundance Film Festival. A follow-up play, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, was performed on the same night in 2009 that the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law. Amazingly, it was performed in all 50 states and in D.C. on that same night. At the time, Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, was grateful the law had finally passed but told the Tectonic’s artistic director/playwright, “Actually, The Laramie Project did more to stop anti-gay violence than a law ever will be able to.”
If, as the saying goes, “there’s a thin line between love and hate,” it’s also true that monsters exist within us all. Art humanizes. Sometimes it allows us to step into someone else’s shoes and see what the world looks like from there. Sometimes it’s so breathtakingly beautiful that it lifts our spirits. Sometimes it’s so profound that it unlocks mysteries inside ourselves. Do we really want to cut this particular $148 million out of a $3.899 trillion budget and risk de-humanizing our society even more? Over two hundred years ago, the second President of the United States said this:
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” John Adams
As a civilization, we’re supposed to be advancing. It’s true we’re at war with terrorism, but if we cut the NEA, we risk further divisiveness in our polarized nation. But that’s not the only reason our government shouldn’t axe the NEA. It makes no sense financially. Think of the millions of dollars Hamilton has brought to the New York economy (the President’s hometown). The Broadway musical has now begun a national tour which will bring big money to other cities. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s parents were born in Puerto Rico and emigrated to the U.S. What if they’d moved to Alaska instead of New York–would we still have a Hamilton? While it’s impossible to say, the existence of the National Endowment for the Arts makes that a possibility.
Just because no U.S. President in the NEA’s 50-year history has been unable to get rid of it, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen this time. Stranger things have taken place. If what I’ve said has resonated with you at all, please don’t remain silent.