As President Trump suggests abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts, local theater, film and museum leaders are rallying to come up with a response.
Without backing from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), none of those major exhibitions would have come to Seattle Art Museum, said current SAM director Kimerly Rorschach.
But, in a move this week that has appalled U.S. arts leaders, President Donald Trump proposed gutting the NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
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“It was like a shock wave went through the community,” said ACT artistic director John Langs. “The fact that we’re even having this conversation opens up the question: ‘Who are we? Who do we want to be as a culture?’ ”
The NEA isn’t just an ATM — and some arts groups don’t rely on funding from the government agency for their survival. For some, what’s more important is the broad institutional support the NEA provides, which many don’t even know about.
For SAM, Rorschach said, the NEA’s checks aren’t as important as its international standing and, as she put it, its “good-housekeeping stamp of approval,” which opens the door for other funders and some other — less literal — forms of support, beyond dollars and cents.
The NEA’s indemnity program, for example, provides insurance to ship valuable artworks from Europe with assurance that the federal government could cover the costs if, say, a Picasso painting was irreparably damaged along the way.
SAM has never needed to cash in on that indemnity money, Rorschach added — but without it, she’s sure that the Picasso shows and other major, significant art experiences would not be possible.
In all, Washington state received about $7 million in NEA grants between 2013 and 2015, though the arts agency reports that every dollar of NEA funding is matched by up to $7 in other contributions, resulting in $46.8 million to arts and culture groups.
The 5th Avenue Theatre typically receives $40,000 to $80,000 a year, said David Armstrong, longtime artistic director. “That isn’t make-or-break financially, but it leverages a lot of other money from foundations and individuals.”
Currently, the 5th Avenue is developing a new musical called “Beautiful Poison” — a New Orleans noir-thriller based on a Nathaniel Hawthorne story — with a $20,000 grant from the NEA.
A few other examples: The musicals “Hamilton” and “Next to Normal,” plus Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County,” all of which won Pulitzer Prizes, have toured here and were developed at theaters that received NEA support. “August” eventually became a film starring Meryl Streep and Ewan McGregor; the touring version of “Hamilton,” a hip-hop musical about one of the U.S. founding fathers, has become so popular, it’s powering local theater subscriptions so people can get first dibs on their seats.
“The NEA is invaluable to us,” said Courtney Sheehan, executive director of the Northwest Film Forum. “This is our largest single public-funding source. (The Film Forum received roughly $35,000 in grant money this year — only $5,000 less than the Seattle Symphony.) “Clearly,” Sheehan added, “this is an ideological move and endemic of a much larger, gross incompetence. It’s destruction of government support that’s vital — social services, public services and the arts and culture that make a society a ‘society’ and not just a bunch of animals.”
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After Trump’s budget was released Thursday, Seattle-area arts leaders and the city’s “rapid-response” team — which Sheehan is a member of — have been scrambling to hash out a proper response. The rapid-response team, said Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture director Randy Engstrom, was explicitly assembled to deal with Trump administration directives that Mayor Ed Murray suspected would run counter to Seattle’s interests.
“Basically,” Engstrom said, “we want to protect our city and our people. We knew, postelection, that our relationship with the federal government would change and it would be scary.”
As the 5th Avenue’s Armstrong and others interviewed for this story mentioned, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously refused to siphon off arts funding to fund the military for World War II, announcing that: “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The state owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them.”
Susan Hutchison, chair of Washington state’s Republican Party and board member of SAM, declined to comment for this story. Efforts to reach other Republicans who have been strong, local arts-and-culture patrons were not successful, either.
And, to some, Trump’s proposal seems foolhardy.
The NEA and NEH represent “such a small pittance in the government’s budget,” Armstrong said. (The annual NEA and NEH endowments take up roughly $300 million of the more than $3 trillion in U.S. federal spending.) “It’s like a simple rounding error for the Pentagon.”