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Howard Sherman: Take to the barricades to defend the arts from Trump’s antagonism

Donald Trump. Photo Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons
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If I were given to cynicism, and if I thought I could get away with it, this week I would have submitted the same column as the one published on March 24 of last year. Why? Because we return to the same topic: President Trump and his antagonism of the arts.

The president has, for the second time in his presidency, submitted a budget to the US Congress eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Never mind that the new budget will balloon the national debt above and beyond the long-term damage done to the US by the tax cut passed in December – a plan that rewards the ultra-rich while penalising the rest of the country.

No, the president and his henchmen still want to make a statement against creativity, arts and scholarship. It would be a meaningless save in the context of the budget itself. But it’s catnip to those perceived as his core supporters.

Underlying Trump’s effort to wipe out the NEA, NEH and CPB is the fact he failed to do so last year. He’s hardly the first politician to use these entities as a political punching bag; they have long been convenient targets for the right who see them as pursuits limited to those who are politically on the left.

Certainly if the right, which always proclaims the value of free markets and self-sufficiency, wanted to prove that the arts don’t need federal support, they might have produced a conservative version of Sesame Street for commercial TV. Or perhaps we would have a wildly successful theatre company dedicated to works based on the writings of Ayn Rand and her acolytes. But as we know, that’s not the case.

Oh, sorry, but maybe I am getting cynical. It’s hard to stay fully positive when, in the 35th year of my career in the arts, I realise the NEA has been under some form of attack almost annually since at least 1990 – fully three-quarters of my professional life. Trumpism may have us on ever more heightened alert, but there’s never really been a moment when we could truly relax regarding this issue. If our community did, we were losing ground.

Nowadays, I get calls to action to defend funding for these tiny slices of the federal budget via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and occasionally still from the post office. But I can recall the era when mail, phone calls and faxes – remember those? – were the organising tools of choice to face down these perennial assaults, whether they came from within the Oval Office or under the Capitol dome.

There’s no question that the efforts to minimise or eliminate these agencies have had an effect, since funding today is less than it was 25 years ago. Even with relatively steady funding of late, the net effect is to reduce the federal impact, since costs rise while the available monies remain the same. Should we hit a period of inflation, the impact would prove even greater, even if the numbers on the ledger remain the same.

All these efforts to wear down the agencies’ advocates must take its toll on the detractors too, right? But instead, each side plays its designated role, battling to, more or less, a draw.

Not to diminish the importance of the funding situation, but this exercise in political gamesmanship is almost like some vintage cartoon series, with antagonists fighting in endless variations on the same theme, only to take up their enmity again in the next instalment.

But fight we must. The identity of the wolf at the door may vary, but the goal is the same. The arts, the humanities and the public broadcasting outlets and their supporters cannot let the government wipe an entire professional discipline from its attention and funding programme.

This year, the battle even faces a new twist, since the changes in the tax code have reduced the tax benefits of charitable deductions for many citizens and the impact of that policy won’t be fully known until donations are tallied at the end of 2018.

And so we organise to hold back those who would overrun us. We make the case for our value spiritually, creatively and economically, as inventively, persuasively and as loudly as possible.

While some political pundits have already suggested the president’s budget is dead on arrival and Congress will assemble something at least marginally more saleable – to each other and to the public – we can’t take the risk that this is the year when our interests might get bargained away.

Yet again, to the barricades (to be very clear, not a wall). And to the phones, the computers and maybe even the fax machines.

This week in US theatre

It has now been more than a decade since Edward Albee debuted Homelife, the companion piece to his seminal one-act play from 1959, The Zoo Story. While the master playwright tinkered with the title for the united works – their 2007 New York premiere at Second Stage was produced as Peter and Jerry – he finally settled on At Home at the Zoo. That’s how the first major NYC revival, opening on Sunday at Signature Theatre under the direction of Lila Neugebauer, is known. Katie Finneran, Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks make up the cast.

The Hampstead Theatre currently has the UK premiere of Sarah Burgess’s Dry Powder running and back at The Public Theater in New York, where the play debuted in 2016, Burgess’ newest, Kings, opens on Tuesday. Thomas Kail once again directs the premiere of Burgesses’ work, a four-character drama about a pragmatic lobbyist and an idealistic political candidate.

It has only taken 15 years, but at long last Jerry Springer: The Opera makes its fully staged New York debut (there have been prior concert presentations) on Thursday under the aegis of Off-Broadway’s The New Group. John Rando directs the Richard Thomas-Stewart Lee work, and the cast is led by Terrence Mann as the title character and Will Swenson as Satan.

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