In Defense of the NEA

In college I was required to take a speech class.  I was reminded the other day that I chose the persuasive speech topic in defense of continued funding of the National Endowment for the Arts.  It was 1994, and the Republicans had just gained control of Congress for the first time since 1954, indeed for the first time since the NEA was created.  The NEA was on the budgetary chopping block.  It was a timely speech, not a very persuasive one ultimately.  I was more angry than persuasive in my college years, but I remember some of the key ideas.

The NEA was founded in 1965 by Lyndon Johnson.  This came about after a movement calling on the United States government to invest in culture the same way it had with science.  The National Endowment for the Humanities was established at the same time.  You can read the act that Johnson signed at the NEH website, it is amazingly moving – for a government document:

The requested 2017 budget for the NEA is reported to have been $149.849 million dollars.  The entire federal budget is $3.8 trillion.  In November 2016, Christie’s sold Claude Monet’s Haystack for $81 million.  The NEA awarded $83,357,050 in grants to fund 1,148 projects in all 50 states last year (source:  To me the NEA seems like a bargain.

I was annoyed in the first Presidential debate this year.  Lester Holt’s first question was something along the lines of “Why are you a better choice than your opponent for creating jobs.”  I was annoyed because the role of the president isn’t to create jobs.  The jobs the President would create would be government jobs – which are something I hear people want less of.  What is funny about opposing the NEA is that it would take jobs away from Americans.  The NEA provides grants for organizations and individuals that provide income to citizens across the country.

Back to that speech.

My speech focused in part on access.  One of the points I made then is still true today – most people can’t buy a Picasso.  Or a Rembrandt, or a Rodin, a Michelangelo or a Banksy.  Some can’t even afford the poorly made reproductions you find in a wall calendar.  Museums and public institutions provide access.  The Internet is a wonderful library of images but I have yet to be as moved by an image or sculpture as I was when I stood in front of one.  The NEA provides funding that allows access to art.

Around the time of my speech class, artist Ron Athley performed in my hometown of Minneapolis and sparked controversy.  In the performance, Athley had made cuts in another performer’s back and took the paper towels used to clean the blood and strung them on a clothesline above the audience – or so I have read, I wasn’t there.  Many people objected, there was a backlash, even lawsuits.  Mutilation wasn’t art people said – keep blood and gore out of museums.  Opposition to this type of art had to take a step back when it was logically concluded that images of the Christ on the cross would have to be included in that broad censorious brush stroke.

Art, as we know, is controversial.

It is also healing, educational, beautiful, difficult, damning, elevating and inspiring.  I think of other professions and areas of study, and so few of them are this multi-faceted.

The NEA is an independent organization and that can make people nervous.  Art can challenge our sense of the world, our sense of self, our leaders, our passions.  That makes art feel threatening to some – expansive to others.  Just over two years ago, someone felt that the artwork of a satirical cartoonist was too threatening and decided to murder the workers at the Charlie Hebdo offices.  People were murdered over their artwork.

Art can make people fearful.  Those who fear art and expression – to the point of murder, or to the point of defunding an entire organization, remind me of the bully on the playground.  That bully is so afraid of what people will say about them that they threaten and beat anyone; take away their pencils so they can’t write or draw or plan.  This isn’t the first time the NEA has come under attack and it won’t be the last time.  We can stand up to the bully and say “No, we choose to keep art and artists funded.”

If you are fortunate to live in a place that values art, you see public art around you on a regular basis or have access to a museum of art.  If you are really fortunate, the school you went to had a dedicated art teacher with a dedicated art classroom as I did.

My teachers and my family helped foster a love of art.  I went on to get my Bachelor’s degree in Art History.  I make and consume as much art as I am able.  Studies show that my life is better for having had an education that included art – making it, learning about it, reading it, listening to it.  But I don’t need a study to tell me that art saved me.  As a nerdy little girl, I had art to retreat to.

But if you, your politician, or indeed the current President of the United States needs a refresher of why art is important to education and the National Endowment for the Arts is a vital agency, here are some resources.

A 2002 Study by The Arts Educational Partnership found that children exposed to drama, music and dance may do a better job at mastering reading, writing and math than those who do not get exposure to those arts.

Here is a link to the paper and a short list of benefits that were summarized in a USA Today article:

The Arts Education Partnership, arguing for the importance of arts in schools, says various art forms benefit students in different ways:

Drama. Helps with understanding social relationships, complex issues and emotions; improves concentrated thought and story comprehension.

Music. Improves math achievement and proficiency, reading and cognitive development; boosts SAT verbal scores and skills for second-language learners.

Dance. Helps with creative thinking, originality, elaboration and flexibility; improves expressive skills, social tolerance, self-confidence and persistence.

Visual arts. Improve content and organization of writing; promote sophisticated reading skills and interpretation of text, reasoning about scientific images and reading readiness.

Multi-arts (combination of art forms). Helps with reading, verbal and math skills; improves the ability to collaborate and higher-order thinking skills.

This article from George Lucas’ Edutopia has a round up of articles and studies on these benefits of art:

Many people look at art as a luxury and the NEA as some fat to trim.  I contend that it is neither.  Since the caves at Lascaux, art has been a means of understanding our world, interpreting it, and sharing our experience.  The side affects are depth of thought, better performance in other areas of education, and joy.

If you value art – even as commodity – please support the NEA and its continued funding.