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Opinion: Art as Soul Food – A Tough Yet Essential Case to Make

President Trump’s proposed budget cuts are ill-advised

Funding for humanities programs, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, is only a fraction of the federal budget and should not be cut, Curtis writes. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)
Funding for humanities programs, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, is only a fraction of the federal budget and should not be cut, Curtis writes. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)

Most critics expressing outrage at President Donald Trump’s proposed budget have focused on cuts to the Community Development Block Grant program that funnels money to Meals on Wheels. And who can blame them? 

If you’re looking for allies for your cause, that’s the narrative you want — one that sets up clear-cut heroes and villains, especially with budget director Mick Mulvaney, sent from central casting and all but twirling a mustache as he says, “We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good,” or “There’s no demonstrable evidence” that after-school programs that also feed children are actually “helping kids do better at school.”

But in general, who does not favor food and companionship for the needy and elderly? Who would not react with shock at the thought that these body- and soul-filling interactions might cease?

That’s your headline, if not the whole story.

Culture wars

Deeper into the news of the budget proposal that the president says delivers on campaign promises, a quieter, not so full-throated, dissent pushed back against threats to eliminate funding for all manner of arts and culture programs, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Yes, leaders of those organizations and those throughout the country that benefit from some federal funding have pointed out that the money allocated — $148 million each for the NEA and NEH, the CPB’s $445 million and $230 million for museum and library services — is a tiny fraction of the total budget.

They have pointed out that money goes not just to plays and artwork that puzzle and sometimes offend, but also to art education for children or creative therapy for veterans fighting post-traumatic stress disorder. The money extends to rural areas far from urban centers, with federal dollars the incentive for matching state and donated funds.

In The Washington Post, Danielle Allen noted that NEH funds also preserve Americans’ shared history by digitizing founding documents and the papers of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and more.

An open letter from Lincoln Center read: “In American cities and towns, arts institutions and districts are breathing life into neighborhoods — attracting investment, spurring development, fueling innovation, and creating jobs. Arts and culture help power the U.S. economy at the astounding level of $704.2 billion each year.”

But when most people think arts and humanities, it usually conjures something a little snooty, out of reach and not at all essential. Cue video of the Broadway “Hamilton” cast, with the approval of audience members who have paid hundreds of dollars for a ticket, lecturing Vice President Mike Pence, and it certainly confirms a stereotype.

Truly, though, as someone who has sat in those orchestra seats — and that’s a show that needs no help surviving — the road there was paved with more than a few federal dollars.

Planting a seed

That money may have been a drop in the bucket, but it was also an investment, and has made all the difference for folks who have continued to give back. The Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, whose neighborhood and main branch I knew by heart, offered not just books but also films and records and quiet rooms to just sit, read and dream. Today’s libraries are often the only place to brush up on computer skills or apply for that next job.

When, as a college student, I tutored Upward Bound high schoolers whose college dreams were challenged by tight finances and homes where neither parent had earned a degree, classes were supplemented with trips to museums and the theater.

“Two Gentlemen of Verona,” a musical that cast Shakespeare through a contemporary lens, was an exciting teaching tool that complemented the English grammar and literature we discussed. Those young people and others who followed, who went on to college and graduate school, still might not be enough to save the embattled U.S. Department of Education, which administers Upward Bound.

A budget is by definition about how much can be carved away. So it’s understandable that a society would prioritize defense, say, above a museum exhibit, and schools would emphasize reading and arithmetic while eliminating arts programs that enrich and inspire through a lifetime and are awfully difficult to measure.

But what would be the cost of such rationing, no matter how rational it seems?

After performing for students who learned about history as well as musical theater, their visit subsidized by a foundation, “Hamilton” actor Anthony Ramos, a product of New York City public schools, told them that through participating in school musicals and sports, he was able to “find that part of me that I didn’t even know I had.”

When looking at the bottom line, there is a cost to society when that part — in anyone — goes missing.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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