Writing in the New York Times, Patricia Cohen discusses this historical role in light of a new study on the NEA’s impact:
“Ever since the late 1980s, when the performance artist Karen Finley started playing around with yams and chocolate, the National Endowment for the Arts has come under fire from some conservative lawmakers. Back then the agency was castigated for giving grants to provocative artists like Ms. Finley, whom some critics called obscene.Now House Republicans charge that the endowment supports programming primarily attended by the rich, causing “a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” A new study to be released on Wednesday challenges that assertion, however, and concludes that federally supported arts programs attract people across the income spectrum; the wealthy, yes, but also many below the poverty line.
“The study, by the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, was specifically intended to test lawmakers’ propositions about arts funding. Last year the House Budget Committee, led by Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, issued a proposed budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which eliminated all funding for the arts endowment as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
“It stated that these agencies’ activities were “generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.”
“To assess that statement, university researchers first looked at income differences in places that receive arts grants and those that don’t. They discovered that the bigger and more economically diverse the community, the more likely it was to receive a grant. These areas have a greater proportion of both poor and rich households, researchers said. In addition, they found that arts grants led poorer people to attend an event just as much as those in higher tax brackets. “There is not a disproportionate benefit to wealthy individuals,” said Zannie Giraud Voss, the director of the arts research center at Southern Methodist. “The poor are as likely to benefit as the wealthy.” (The center receives no federal funding, although it relies on the endowment agency for some of the data is uses in its research.) William Allison, the press secretary for the House committee, said, “We’ll let the statement in our budget blueprint speak for itself.” The National Endowment for the Arts has long been targeted by many conservative members of Congress.They were outraged, for example, that the agency had awarded grants to Ms. Finley, who smeared chocolate and yams over her naked body; a grant to support a touring exhibition of work by Robert Mapplethorpe, known for his homoerotic and sexually explicit photographs; and to Andres Serrano, an artist who immersed a crucifix in a jar of urine. In the mid-1990s Congress slashed the agency’s funding by 40 percent. In the years that followed, the endowment all but halted its grants to individual artists and focused instead on financing cultural organizations and programs that offer increased access to the arts. Meanwhile, endowment chiefs took pains to cultivate support from the left and the right. Over the years, financing slowly inched its way toward pre-1990s levels. The 2014 appropriation is $146 million, said Victoria Hutter, an endowment spokeswoman. The agency has also been without a permanent chairman for more than a year.