Federal Arts Funding Beyond ‘Piss Christ’

The short version: Bullies who favor guns over culture distort facts so they can gut federal arts funding; here are some facts.

The news
“The president’s budget would eliminate the NEA’s $148 million budget, the NEH’s $148 million budget and the CPB’s $445 million budget, as well as $230 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which supports libraries and museums across the country.”

— Washington Post

Here we go again. A GOP budget plan to ax arts funding. Right-wingers cheering it on, saying things like arts are elitist and that people who want arts should pay for it themselves . This all seems to be a reflection of a couple different ways of looking at the world: the libertarian one, in which everyone needs to do everything for themselves (except maybe national defense?); and a kind of anti-intellectualism in reference to culture that can be summed up as “if I don’t understand it, it must be elitist.”

I’m reminded of a story told by a former newspaper colleague who recounted a meeting with an adult person in public. That person, recognizing her from her photo in the newspaper, said something like, “You write those movie reviews, right? You must be a millionaire.”

I recognize that I have been privileged pretty much all my life: hardworking parents and good schools instilled in me strong values for education, culture, hard work, and care for my fellow human beings. I’ve been lucky to have opportunities to work as an arts journalists and now work at a museum, and have had short stories and poetry published. So  I know I can be easily labeled a “East Coast liberal elitist,” and I have had access to behind-the-scenes workings of how cultural things are produced. So I also know about what a newspaper movie reviewer gets paid. (Or I should say “got paid,” because very few daily newspapers in midsized markets have staff movie reviewers anymore.) It was a living wage, but hardly a fast-track to the millionaire status.

So what was that person thinking? My guess is that it was a conflation of how so much of the movie industry focuses on stars and money, where top actors get paid millions for a few months work, and movies costs tens and hundreds of millions, and every week you can read in the newspaper how many millions of dollars earned by the top-grossing movies. So if a movie reviewer is part of that ecosystem, they must be a millionaire, too.

So much of the media focuses on the unique and unusual — it usually is what is most interesting, after all — that it can distort the picture of what is usual.

It makes it so that people can have strong opinions and assumptions about things they don’t know about.

Right-wing tweets

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 10.42.33 AMScreen Shot 2017-03-18 at 10.42.13 AM

I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that people against the NEA would point to the 1987 photograph “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano, which caused a scandal when exhibited in 1989, due, in part, to Serrano having been a recipient of an individual NEA grant in 1986. But these critics are talking about things that happened about 30 years ago, and so they don’t take into account how money is given out today.

Like health care, federal arts funding is complicated. I have to admit that even though I support federal funding for the arts in general, I was like the twitterers above mentioning Piss Christ: I didn’t really know how the money was being given out recently.

So I looked things up. With the Internet and democracy, it is easy to find out how NEA funds and IMLS funds are given out. I focused on what grants were given to cultural organizations in and around where I live in the greater Capital Region of New York State, from the Hudson Valley to the Adirondacks.

I counted more than $600,000 to a variety of organizations for 2016 alone. My guess is that unless you are involved directly with the organizations listed below, then you had no idea the federal government was giving support to the organizations. And if you aren’t from this geographic area, then you probably haven’t even heard of most of these organizations.

Anyway, In the big picture of the federal government, $600,000 isn’t a lot. But $10,000 of that going to Salem Art Works is likely crucial to it fulfilling its mission and allowing people in that rural area a chance to interact with and participate with contemporary sculptors. $19,000 for the Iroquois Museum will make possible an artist’s mural and public participation in the creation of that mural, a chance for people to gain firsthand knowledge of the ongoing artistic expressions of Native Americans. Nearly $50,000 for the Oneida Indian Nation to catalog objects in its collection can have immeasurable effects in how the Oneidas can tell their story, and how people can come to a deeper understanding of the Oneida story within the larger American story.

These funds are helping to pay for the nuts and bolts of the work that happens in the cultural sector, including cultural organizations far from the big cities, and extremely far from the Hollywood envisioned by one of the twitterers I mention above (let alone the person who thinks a movie critic must be a millionaire). The money means jobs and opportunity. The money is an investment and support for the hard-to-quantify significance that exposure to culture can have on people and how they think about the world.

I encourage you to look up for yourself how things like IMLS and NEA funds have been granted to arts organizations near where you live. Just click on the organizations’ links below.

Institute of Museum and Library Services

I counted a total of $396,665 in federal funds coming to the greater Capital Region from the most recent announced funding cycle, fiscal year 2016.

Oneida Indian Nation
Log Number: MN-00-16-0019-16
Fiscal Year: 2016
Award: $49,971.00
City: Oneida
Program: Native American/Native Hawaiian Museum Services
State: NY
Recipient Type: Museum
Adirondack History Center Museum
Log Number: MA-31-16-0212-16
Fiscal Year: 2016
Award: $24,951.00
City: Elizabethtown
Program: Museums for America
State: NY
Program Categories: MFA-Collections 25K
Recipient Type: Museum
Iroquois Indian Museum
Log Number: MA-31-16-0151-16
Fiscal Year: 2016
Award: $24,737.00
City: Howes Cave
Program: Museums for America
State: NY
Program Categories: MFA-Collections 25K
Recipient Type: Museum
Adirondack Museum
Log Number: MA-30-16-0483-16
Fiscal Year: 2016
Award: $150,000.00
City: Blue Mountain Lake
Program: Museums for America
State: NY
Program Categories: MFA-Collections
Recipient Type: Museum
Fort Ticonderoga Museum
Log Number: MA-30-16-0178-16
Fiscal Year: 2016
Award: $147,006.00
City: Ticonderoga
Program: Museums for America
State: NY
Program Categories: MFA-Collections
Recipient Type: Museum


NEA support in the greater Capital Region of upstate New York

I counted up a total of $219,000 in federal NEA funds coming to the greater Capital Region from awards granted in most recent cycle, fall 2016.


Albany Symphony Orchestra, Inc. (aka Albany Symphony)
$15,000 Albany, NY
Art Works – Music
To support the American Music Festival.
Under the direction of Music Director David Alan Miller, the festival will take place at the Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York. The theme of the festival will celebrate the bicentennial of the Erie Canal by exploring connections between communities. The centerpiece of the festival will feature world premieres of commissioned works by Katherine Balch and Reena Esmail, as well as works by Christopher Theofanidis, Steven Stucky, and many other composers. Other activities may include a composer reading session, chamber music programs, a symposium on the Canal’s historical significance, and a songwriting project.

Fence Magazine, Incorporated (aka Fence)
Albany, NY
Art Works – Literature
To support the publication and promotion of new books of poetry in print and electronic formats, as well as the journal “Fence” and an online site for poetry criticism. The press plans to publish books by such authors as Walter Benjamin (in translation from the German), Harmony Holiday, Douglas Kearney, and Steven Alvarez. The biannual journal features poetry, fiction, art, and criticism, and the online site “The Constant Critic” offers bimonthly reviews of new poetry titles.

Research Foundation of State University of New York (On behalf of Neuberger Museum of Art – Purchase College)
$45,000Albany, NY
Art Works – Museum
To support the exhibition, “Romare Bearden Abstractions” at the Neuberger Museum of Art and accompanying catalogue. Although best known for representational collages produced between 1964 and his death in 1988, to date there has been little substantive scholarly attention to Bearden’s (1911-88) body of work that directly preceded those, namely his non-representational, large-scale stain paintings and mixed media collages. The exhibition will include large-scale stain paintings and mixed media collages created between 1955 and 1964 by the African-American artist, musician, and author. One of the most important components of the production of this exhibition will be the conservation and framing of objects that have rarely been exhibited. The Neuberger Museum of Art plans extensive outreach. It is anticipated that the exhibition will travel to two additional U.S. venues


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