In 1989, American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibit, “The Perfect Moment,” which featured portraits, floral studies, and graphic same-sex S&M photos, was slated to go on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C. after making appearances in both Philadelphia and Chicago. When Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina learned that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had given the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia $30,000 for Mapplethorpe’s works, he assembled a group of 100 Congressmen who wrote a letter condemning the NEA. Over the next few months, the Corcoran Gallery cancelled the Mapplethorpe exhibit, artists and LGBT activists picketed the gallery, and NEA funding became more acutely mandated than ever before.
That was 1989. Now, in 2017, controversies in free speech have been supplanted with groans of budgetary carrion. “The Trump Administration needs to reform and cut spending dramatically, and targeting waste like the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be a good first step in showing that the Trump Administration is serious about radically reforming the federal budget,” says Brian Darling, a former aid to Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and former staffer at the Heritage Foundation. Such fiscal fat-trimming proponents as Mike Pence, Rand Paul, and the Heritage Foundation are recapitulating the 30-plus-year debate over the improvidence of a hogwash program like the NEA, as if the arts community needed more ammunition to convene under the now fully actualized Trump administration.
Of course, the art community’s response to Trump has already surfaced with artists unabashedly proclaiming their discontent, a clear example being the cryptic Dear Ivanka Instagram account, which adduces the First Daughter’s role as a patron and frequenter of the art world as an armament for rebellion. The account, which has now garnered nearly 20,000 followers, features a delectable breadth of protest art.
“Dear Ivanka is this loose affiliation of artists, curators, dealers, and collectors,” remarks NYC-based artist and Dear Ivanka umbrella organization, Halt Action Group, member Sam McKinniss, “We recognized that there was an overlap in our respective social milieus, noting that Ivanka has been a somewhat active collector, and since there were many of us who vociferously opposed Trump’s campaign, we got together and thought of ways that we could forge any access to the Trump camp.
Our mission is to irritate: irritate Ivanka, irritate her family and irritate the administration, reminding people that she was and has been complicit in propping up her father, who is a racist, incites violence, and is unfit to lead the country. Artists have a very privileged position in society, but we understand that power uses art to decorate itself, making itself more attractive and more palatable and more beautiful. The Halt Action Group, as a group of concerned artists and concerned citizens has decided that we can’t be silent or complicit. We refuse to decorate the halls of power for this administration.”
What do these art community uprisings against Trump mean in the wake of arguably the most socially stratifying election in history? With the National Endowment for the Arts under attack (again), what type of response can we expect from artist communities, educational organizations, dance foundations, museums, and the 970 institutions who received a total dollar amount of over $25 million in Art Works grants just last year alone who are still eligible for NEA funding?
To provide a bit of background on why the National Endowment for the Arts funds the way they do, we have to go back to 1990. The arts community was still reeling from the controversy over Mapplethorpe, who by March of 1989 is dead after fighting a battle with HIV/AIDS. The modern artist’s aesthetic was rife with LGBT subjects and live nudity addressing the objectification of women. And, four performance artists’ proposed NEA grants were vetoed due to “indecency.” Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes, who each successfully passed the NEA’s peer review process, faced pushback from the George H.W. Bush-appointed fifth chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, John Frohnmayer, whose reign was largely shrouded by contentious partisan politics rooted in the rise of neoconservatism and neoliberalism.
The “NEA Four,” as they’ve come to be known throughout the arts community, filed a case against the NEA, NEA v. Finley, alleging that John Frohnmayer violated their constitutional rights by wrongly turning down their applications for NEA grants. The artists won in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and were awarded amounts equal to the grant money in request. Though a momentary success, the case of the NEA Four, due to pressure from Congress, resulted in what are now known as the last four NEA grants awarded to individual artists. So what types of grants are under threat now?
“In a town where a great number of people consider themselves advisors, I can’t comment on how seriously these recommendations might be taken in D.C.,” remarked Americans for the Arts president and CEO Robert L. Lynch in a statement responding to Thursday’s The Hill article stating that the President’s advisors are calling for the elimination of the NEA. “The arts create unique cultural identities for communities, dynamic tourism destinations for visitors, educational programs for adults and children, healing programs for military veterans and their families, and improvement in areas as diverse as transportation, housing, and infrastructure.”
Just last month, Americans for the Arts was one of 970 organizations and programs to receive an NEA Arts Now grant in the amount of $100,000 for the 2017 fiscal year. Said VP for Government Affairs and Arts Education, Narric W. Rome, “We had launched our State Policy Pilot Program (or SP3) three years ago. The initiative’s goal is to support ten states seeking to strengthen arts education by advancing state policy. For instance, the California state team has been working on trying to build more use of Title I federal dollars that go out to schools districts around the country by analyzing how those dollars can be used to supports arts education programs and identify organizations already using federal dollars in such a way.”
Other arts education organizations benefitting from NEA funding include: Mosaic Youth Theater of Detroit, a multi-phase, theater-based performing arts program for youth, which received $55,000 in grants for 2017; The California Alliance for Arts Education’s Create CA program, which received $100,000 in grants to support collective impact in arts education; and the Tulane University Educational Fund, which received $80,000 towards the production of their “American Roots” radio show, which will feature performances from blues musicians as well as American musicians on a cultural diplomacy tour in China.
These are the types of fundamental programs that in 2017 face financial threat. And with the ushering in of the age of Trump, there’s no telling when or where such budget cuts could occur. It begs the question—are arts programs simply the first domino in what we can expect to be a chain of soon-to-be rescinded government programs?
“Art is always going to take the first hit because, from a political point of view, it’s the first target, so that’s why I think the NEA will be chopped first,” said McKinniss, “They want to chop everything else on Obama’s liberal agenda—the Affordable Care Act, climate change—art is just the first to go because it’s easiest. When we talk about arts advocacy, education, and access to museums and galleries, though, then it becomes a quality of life issue and removing that access for people who could have a richer life, something to inspire and uplift them, is a whole different story. It’s not just members of the art world in New York, Miami Beach and Los Angeles—those people won’t suffer, they will continue to sell art—it’s the arts education minded world that will suffer from losing the NEA.”
It has been almost three decades since the Mapplethorpe controversy and the NEA Four first cast the National Endowment for the Arts as an indecency-backer and endorser of anti-family values platforms. While the NEA’s existence seems more fragile now more than ever, it’s important to recognize that it’s no longer a matter of decency in art, but rather what best befits our communities, our youth, individuals with disabilities, and our veterans. The NEA no longer funds individual artists—it hasn’t for many years. If we defund the NEA, if we push over that first domino, we slowly begin to lessen the quality of life for the many who benefit from these 970 programs, organizations, and institutions. So I ask you, Mr. President, why “target the waste” when there’s no fat left to trim?
Leah Rosenzweig is an Arts & Culture writer with a degree in Existential Philosophy. She writes for Art+Auction and Modern Painters magazines in New York and exercises her right to supercommute from sunny Philadelphia.