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Howard Sherman: Trump hasn’t destroyed the arts yet, but not for want of trying

Donald Trump. Photo: A Katz/Shutterstock
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It comes as no particular surprise that Donald Trump has made it known he’d like to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. It has been rumoured since he took office and is of a piece with his systematic attempts to dismantle not simply the advances of the Obama administration, but the core policies of America dating back to the 1930s. In his budget outline, the president has sought to zero funding not only for the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to name a few, but to downsize almost every federal agency that isn’t directly connected to defence or national security.

It’s important to understand, however, that Trump’s budget is a political statement of intent. The US Congress has the actual responsibility of formulating and passing a budget before it reaches the president’s desk for signature. This is what he wants to see happen, but not necessarily what he’s going to get – it’s the start of a complicated process, rather than the final word. The president has, at this moment, offered up countless programs to the chopping block, everything from health insurance to meal delivery for seniors to humanitarian foreign aid. The cuts to the arts and humanities and related programs are, as they have been at other times they’ve been proposed by other politicians, purely for show. They yield infinitesimally small savings, so far below 1% of the federal budget that an Excel spread sheet might accidentally lop them off in a rounding error.

Unlike Arts Council England funding, the loss of which can and has caused companies to immediately shutter, an NEA cut would not wipe out swaths of organisations directly, especially among large institutions. A loss of the NEA would hinder programming, especially at smaller, grassroots troupes and facilities, and hidden impact would be felt at state arts agencies, or at art museums, which often have touring exhibitions insured through NEA support. Would it be a cataclysm? Perhaps not, but the impact would send ripples through the arts field in myriad ways. Yet if all social programs are diminished or axed at once, the arts will be in a Darwinian battle for private funds to make up for such losses.

At a time when the president has installed cabinet chiefs whose careers have been dedicated to tearing down the very programs they now run, it is easy to believe that the arts will be traded away in order to preserve some other aspect of the budget, an easy give at the negotiating table. Fortunately, there are Republican officials who have spoken up in support of the NEA, NEH, CPB and so on, acknowledging that the arts are not simply the pastime of liberal elites, but rather part of the quality of life woven into the fabric of America.

It will only take a few more senators to declare their opposition to many aspects of the Trump budget to strike things from his laundry list of expendable programs, albeit not without significant advocacy from the public and resolve by elected officials. By sheer coincidence, the annual Arts Advocacy Day, where arts groups lobby federal officials on the value of the arts, took place on March 21. It’s far from the only lobbying required, but the timing was fortuitous.

As someone who has worked primarily at companies that receive NEA funding, I am obviously a partisan in favour of the agency, but I am also someone who in recent years has secured health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Trump doesn’t want me to have to choose between the two programs, since he’d like to see both gone, profoundly altering my life for the worse. I wouldn’t want to choose between them because I believe deeply in one and need the other in order to live a safe and healthy life.

With so much uncertainty and indeed fear injected into so much of American life right now, people are speaking out to their elected officials on an array of needs, so that we don’t allow the country to descend into a militarily safe, socially wrecked nation. Whether we are saved from that dystopian potential by bipartisan agreement against the president’s wishes or the administration’s undoing over unconstitutional or illegal practices doesn’t matter to me. I might say that wanting to be a citizen of a country that tries to make the world a better place through international collaboration and cooperation, while insuring the physical health of its people and committing to the creation and preservation of art, is a rather tall order. Except that that’s the path we’ve been on in recent years, imperfectly perhaps, but with the kind of goals we need.

This week in US theatre

Following well received productions at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Arena Stage and The Public Theater, Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, about the loss of jobs in one Pennsylvania town, reaches Broadway this week, once again directed by Kate Whoriskey and with largely the same cast as seen at The Public. When it opens on March 26, it marks the official Broadway debut of Nottage, already an acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

Richard Jones’ Old Vic production of The Hairy Ape reaches New York this week, opening Thursday for a limited run at The Park Avenue Armory, which has previously been home to the NYC engagements of the Donmar’s The Machine and the Manchester Festival’s Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh. Bobby Cannavale steps into the role of Yank in this early O’Neill work, played in 2015 at the Old Vic by Bertie Carvel.

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