The White House Budget, Arts, Culture, and What America Values

The White House’s proposed 2018 budget was release yesterday and showed – no surprise – an across the board move to eliminate federal agencies for arts, museums, libraries, history, heritage, preservation, culture…our national parks, education related to STEM and STEAM.

The total proposed cuts are $836.6 million.  These keep agencies afloat while they close doors, and while (one suspects) they shutter national parks and monuments.

Dialogue and advocacy to forestall the cuts may again work.  We hope.

Is there another hope, another way forward?  Is this the time, before it is too late, to rethink and propose restructuring of the parallel entities that provide federal funding for America’s culture to develop a new national approach to support and a new national agenda, from a single, all encompassing platform?

It has been decades since the greats of America’s culture were brought together to work out an agenda for America’s national approach to funding.  Since then, our culture has changed dramatically – exhibited in the design and intended outcomes of grants programs. But at the same time, the purpose and structures and mechanisms from the Federal government haven’t adjusted proactively, but re-actively, and in limited ways.

Is it too late for a national cultural summit? (Imagine one brought together by the White House together with the US Congress.)  A summit that identifies the most essential, central role for Federal government and how that can be carried out, and that also addresses what has to be the matching role of philanthropy, state and local support, and even the role of the individual donor?  Is it too late to state the core values that must drive federal investment in culture – the intrinsic reason that at a federal policy level our culture is essential to fund in ways that cannot be diminished?  Many who oppose funding culture through the present agencies say, with some justification, that there have become too many ancillary value statements and not enough core value statements.  Too much “it boosts the economy and it is good for education and it contributes to wellness” and not enough “it is who we are and why we have toiled as a nation since America was founded.”

Is there a threshold amount – however many millions – that the funding now administered by IMLS, NEA, NEH, National Park Service, National Science Foundation, State and Tribal Preservation Offices, NASA Office of Education and others cannot go below?  Is there a safety net for American culture that must hold no matter what?   How many millions in support must realistically become the responsibility of philanthropy? What is the amount that must become the responsibility of states – say, if they are going to receive any federal dollars for infrastructure or other programs? And what does the new support blueprint mean for every cultural nonprofit in America?  What must their thinking be, in response?

Is it too late to get out of the boxes of self-interest – the arts versus the humanities versus preservation versus libraries versus museums versus science?  If so, we have indeed lost our way.  But if we could, and we could define a new way forward with no less passion and commitment than those who came together to forge the NEA, the NEA, the IMLS, our national preservation efforts and the work done by our National Park Service, we could potentially ignite new support.  If we could look at synergies rather than the competition, and place it all in the context of today and tomorrow’s technologies, today and tomorrow’s value priorities, then we could advocate in a fresh rather than tired way.

Mine is just one small voice.  I pray that voices with megaphones and podiums may call for this, and more.   It must not be too late.

 

 

 

 

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