Former Leader Of National Arts Fund Says Organization Should Be Protected

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Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is interviewed by the Associated Press in April 2003 in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is interviewed by the Associated Press in April 2003 in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The future of the National Endowment for the Arts is uncertain under President Trump. Some conservative groups are calling for the NEA, which provides grants for state and local arts organizations, to be eliminated.

The White House hasn’t yet called for NEA funding to be cut or eliminated, but Trump’s calls for limiting government could mean the NEA and its sister organization the National Endowment for the Humanities, are at risk.

A former chairman of the NEA, Dana Gioia (@DanaGioiaPoet), explains to Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson how the NEA serves communities and why he thinks it’s worth protecting.

Interview Highlights

On what the National Endowment for the Arts does

"The National Endowment for the Arts over the last half century has been the largest annual funder of the arts and arts education in the United States. In most years, the NEA gives about 2,000 grants. They go to every state, every congressional district in the United States."

"Right now, it has a $148 million, which has actually declined over the last eight years, but the budget is actually misleading. The reason is that what the NEA does, and this is the thing that most people don't understand, is it is the national catalyst for local arts and arts education. Every dollar that the NEA gives requires a match. So, whether it goes to the states, it goes to localities — and in the course of moving to Washington, this money actually multiplies by about seven times. So it represents about $1.2 billion of new funding. All of this money basically is invested in local economies, in the local schools, museums, arts organizations. And it provides those organizations with a, as it were, requirement to develop local support for the local programming. So it's a very powerful organization in that sense. If I can give you an example: When I became the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, two states — Colorado and California — decided to cut their state arts budgets as a money-saving move. After some uncomfortable negotiation, I communicated to the states that if they discontinued their arts agency, by legal requirement, I could not give them funds. That compelled them to keep these organizations in operation, even though it was at a very minimal level. And it kept those services intact, so consequently, California which eliminated or tried to eliminate this agency, is now giving $25 million a year to the arts. It only stayed in existence because of the funds coming from the NEA."

"What the NEA really does is fund art programs that are, for the most part, created in your community, by people in your community, to serve your community."

Dana Gioia

On why funding should not be cut

"I think it's a misconception, and it's an unfortunate situation. Supporting the arts and arts education is not a partisan position. If you ask most people whether they want arts in their communities, arts in their schools, there is an overwhelmingly positive response. People have been misled to thinking that somehow there is a remote federal arts agency that is funding a few elite arts organizations. What the NEA really does is fund art programs that are, for the most part, created in your community, by people in your community, to serve your community."

On whether the NEA will lose its funding

"I don't think so. And the reason is I think most people understand the quality of the programs that are being offered. The Big Read is to support literacy and reading. Shakespeare in American Community, which brings many local theater companies to produce production of Shakespeare so that high school kids can actually see the plays that they're studying in school. Operation Homecoming provides workshops for the vets returning from military service, so they can write about their wartime experience. These are not programs that are remote from people's lives. People see immediately the value of these programs, both on a national level and a local level.

So, I think that what's going to happen is that we'll have to go through the same political debate, the same political arguments we did in the previous century. And ultimately, it will come down to the fact that supporting the arts and arts education is a bipartisan belief. That it's pretty much a kind of misconception that's driving the criticism. I mean, basically the criticisms of the NEA fall into two categories. One is that the arts is just simply something the government should not support. I don't think people believe that. I think people see a role for culture in their communities. And the second is the sense that somehow the NEA goes against American values, and it's promoting grants that are found offensive by people. This is really not true. The programs that the NEA supports really have almost universal public support."

On running the NEA under President Bush

"Running the NEA under President Bush, we were able to raise the budget every year of his presidency. We were able to build a bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress. And you know, we really took the agency into a period where it was well valued and well understood. I think one of the problems is that we were very active in those years in terms of creating a public conversation with America about what we were doing, why we were doing and the value. And people responded. I think what's happened in some ways is that the public conversation has, first of all, diminished, and secondly, been monopolized by critics. I suspect that in Congress, even there, a majority of Republicans see the value of the NEA."

On politics surrounding the arts

"I'm a poet. I'm a writer. I gave a number of years of my life to public service. I was glad to be in Washington, I was glad to do good work. But I'd like to write poems now! But unfortunately, I've been drafted back into this, and I think it is important. The reason — I didn't really want to be the NEA chairman. The reason I did it is that I saw, as a poet going around the United State giving readings, giving lectures, everywhere I went, people in the audience would ask me about what they should do because they saw the arts programs being cut out of their children's schools. They saw the arts programs disappearing from their community. And this struck them, quite rightly, as a sort of impoverishment of their community identity. And we needed some kind of intelligent national leadership to rebuild the consensus about the importance of arts and arts education. Unfortunately, we need to have that conversation again."

This segment aired on February 27, 2017.



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