The NEA is Essential

Arts and Culture Aren’t an Elitist Extravagance, They’re Essential to American Life

In the March 2013 budget resolution for FY 2014, the House Budget Committee threatened to cut the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) budget by 49%, arguing that NEA-funded activities constitute “a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” To understand the relationship between NEA funding and community wealth, the SMU National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) turned to data to answer the following question: Does NEA grant-making show bias toward arts organizations in wealthier communities, constituting an intercommunity transfer of wealth? We compared the community wealth characteristics of all arts organizations receiving NEA grants to those of all arts organizations that did not receive NEA grants. We found that NEA grants do not favor arts organizations in wealthier communities. We found no bias in NEA grant-making either toward or against organizations on the basis of the median household income of the surrounding community.

Fast-forward four years and the NEA’s future is again in jeopardy. In March 2017, the White House released its proposed budget to Congress, recommending termination of funding for the nation’s federal cultural agencies. Elimination of federal support is not about the money: The NEA budget comes to 45 cents per capita or .003% of the federal budget. The decimation of federal support is the coup de grâce of a long campaign that has been carefully crafted to perpetuate the myth that arts and culture are irrelevant to most Americans.

Over the past 25 years, rhetoric has intensified, framing arts and culture as elitist and available and of interest only to those with concentrated power, wealth, or an address on the West Coast or Northeast corridor. This rhetoric not only succeeds in diminishing perceptions of the relevancy of arts and culture to American life, it dishonors and invalidates the real experiences with arts and culture that people make part of their lives throughout the country.

Arts and culture aren’t just for an elite part of the population. They are closer and more personal than most people give them credit for being. A comparative mapping of the location of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in the U.S. with that of the U.S. population distribution reveals that these organizations are where people live, not just in big cities or on the coasts. They are well-distributed across the country, serving communities both poor and affluent, rural and urban, and they offer experiences that engage a large share of Americans.

A closer look at arts and cultural organizations that file IRS 990 forms reveals these key figures:

39,292: The number of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in the U.S. with total annual budgets of $50,000 or more.

$31.7 billion: The total amount that the 39,292 organizations collectively added to the U.S. economy in the form of direct payments for labor, goods, and services.

908,175: The estimated number of people employed by the 39,292 organizations. We report here only on paid workers, not the armies of volunteers who contribute their time and talents in artistic and administrative roles.

467,218,109: Estimated attendance at the 39,292 organizations (total attendance, not unique attendees). The U.S. population was just above 322 million in 2015, which might make the 467.2 million attendance figure seem high until we consider the landscape and makeup of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations. In addition to being located across the country, the majority of organizations can be found in four sectors that are highly accessible and relevant to neighborhood life: community-based, music, museums, and theater.

In addition to illuminating the magnitude, dispersion, and touchpoints of arts and cultural organizations, the IRS 990 data reveals that the arts and culture field is enhanced by federal funding. Aside from the direct dollars that support community programming and the required matching funds that organizations raise from the private sector, federal funding has a significant, positive impact that extends beyond dollars. It is a catalyst for employment and engagement. All else being equal, when an organization receives federal arts funding, those dollars increase employment by 1.5% and attendance by 2.7%. More national funding for the arts would mean that more Americans could benefit from the jobs and participation stimulated by the federal funding boost.

Written by Zannie Voss, Director, SMU National Center for Arts Researcher and Glenn B. Voss, Research Director, SMU National Center for Arts Research

The impact of National Endowment for the Arts and Texas Commission on the Arts for national and local institutions cannot be understated. Since 2011, these entities have sponsored the following Nasher Sculpture Center exhibitions and programs:

The Nature of Arp: Sculptures, Reliefs, Works on Paper
(NEA, 2018)

Assistive listening devices for Nasher tours and programs
(TCA, 2017)

Nasher Gallery Teacher program
(TCA, 2015-16)

HopeKids Art Experiences Days at the Nasher
(TCA, 2014-16)

‘til Midnight at the Nasher
(TCA, 2014, 2016-17)

Operating Expenses
(TCA, 2011-16)

Giuseppe Penone:Being the River, Repeating the Forest
(TCA, 2015)

Melvin Edwards: Five Decades
(NEA, 2014)

Nasher 3:01 Club
(TCA, 2014)

GROW at the Nasher
(TCA, 2013)

Nasher XChange
(NEA & TCA, 2013)