The Lowe Down: What will Trump do to the arts?

By Jim Lowe
The Lowe Down

While the country is reeling — some celebrating — over the havoc wreaked by the first weeks of the presidency of Donald J. Trump in the areas of immigration, human rights, health insurance, international relations and whatever else he might think of, a quieter matter is emerging.

It has been reported — neither confirmed nor denied — that the Trump administration plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, while privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

That isn’t good for arts organizations around the country, and Vermont in particular, but it will mostly hurt private citizens — ordinary Vermonters.

Congressional Republicans have had the NEA in their sights since the late North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms was offended by an art exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989. Since then, the censorship argument has grown tired, so the United States deficit is the latest excuse.

But that doesn’t hold a lot of water. The NEA’s $146 million budget in 2015 isn’t even a drop in the current $441 billion deficit bucket. The federal arts organization had already weathered a 14 percent cut following the recession. The combined budgets of the arts and humanities endowments account for just over .002 percent of federal discretionary spending.

According to Fortune magazine, the Bureau of Economic Analysis recently released a report that attempts to put a dollar amount on the arts economy and its impact. They found that arts and cultural production contributed more than $704 billion to the American economy. This accounts for 4.2 percent of the U.S. GDP and is greater than the contributions of the construction ($586.7 billion), transportation, and warehousing ($464.1 billion) industries.

The arts have long been arguing their economic importance, but what does that mean for Vermont? A 2010 report by the Center for Policy Analysis, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, using 2009 data, estimated that Vermont’s creative industry generated over $443 million in total output (sales), 6,361 jobs, and nearly $200 million in compensation (including benefits), while contributing over $19 million in taxes to the state and local governments. It’s probably more now.

Impressive, but what does that mean for me and my family?

The Vermont Arts Council, in 2015, received nearly $700,000 of its $1.8 million budget from the NEA. Losing that would certainly decimate the agency’s very limited financial contributions to arts organizations, artists and arts education.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter: Why should the government support the arts? (We are skipping the matter of government subsidizing of big business, like ExxonMobil.)

There is no question the arts would continue to exist without government support. There would still be art galleries, theater, symphony and chamber music concerts, theater and opera. But far fewer of us would be able to afford to enjoy them. Tickets to most arts events cover only 40 to 60 percent of the cost.

And it would limit artistic experimentation; only very popular entertainments would survive. And, in Vermont, even that is questionable. Despite bringing in national and international stars, the state’s major venues — like Rutland’s Paramount Theatre, the Barre Opera House, Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and Middlebury Town Hall Theater — are dependent upon government grants and other “handouts” for survival.

But, mostly it’s for the kids, America’s most important asset. According to the NEA, 40 percent of the activities it supports take place in high-poverty neighborhoods. Don’t we owe it to our future?

Jim Lowe is arts editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com or jim.lowe@timesargus.com.