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The Biblioracle: Save some anger: Chicago loses out if Trump defunds arts, humanities endowments

This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on February 15, 2017. You can find the original article here.


Given the chaotic nature of the first weeks of the Trump presidency, when the likely inevitable announcement comes of his intention to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the news will barely register.

Defunding the NEA and NEH would be on the agenda of just about any Republican president. The party has long objected on philosophical grounds to this kind of use of taxpayer money as well as on cultural grounds to art produced using government funds that some conservatives believe is beyond the bounds of decency.

But I hope we still have some capacity for outrage left, because when it comes to bang for the buck, the NEA and NEH deliver tremendous good to broad swaths of the country.

The bucks at stake — the NEA and NEH each receive just under $150 million per year — sound like a lot, but it’s about two one-hundredths of 1 percent of federal discretionary spending.

Just about any major theatrical production or musical likely has an NEA grant woven somewhere into its DNA, often through grants to theaters that nurture the development of the material while it’s getting ready for the big stage. An NEA grant helped fund the festival that staged the first performances of what would become the Tony-winning musical “Hamilton.”

The NEA has been particularly important for Chicago. Both the Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters have received generous grants in recent years that allowed them to put on productions that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera, the Chicago International Film Festival have all received NEA money.

The NEH covers a wide swath of activities in education and the humanities, but is especially important when it comes to preserving and promoting popular history at the state and local level.

For example, the Public Scholar grant program provides stipends that allow historians to do the time-consuming research necessary to complete their projects. Erik Gellman of Roosevelt University received one last year to help to complete a book on postwar Chicago, featuring images by photographer Art Shay.

State humanities councils are significantly funded by the NEH. The Illinois Humanities Council received over $1 million in 2016.

Given the passion of recent protests, if the president acts to defund the NEH and NEA, it’s tempting to think people will rally and give money to arts organizations. After all, the ACLU received $24 million in online donations — more than six times its normal yearly total — in just one weekend following the recent executive order on immigration.

But passions tend to cluster as we engage in our natural herding tendencies. Remember the guy who asked for $10 on Kickstarter to make potato salad and wound up with $55,000?

That was fun and all, but one of the reasons oversight organizations like the NEA, NEH and state-level arts councils are necessary is to distribute money in a way that benefits projects that have yet to achieve prominence.

If the agencies are killed, they’re never coming back. Think about American culture without Steppenwolf or “Hamilton.” That’s what we’re facing.

John Warner is the author of “Tough Day for the Army.” Follow him @biblioracle.

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