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Critics of the NEA often say its funding is welfare for rich, liberal elites. They're wrong.

A look at the NEA’s approach to funding art tells a very different story.

Tucker Carlson said that the NEA is “welfare for rich, liberal elites” on his Fox show on March 17.
Tucker Carlson said that the NEA is “welfare for rich, liberal elites” on his Fox show on March 17.

On his show on Friday, March 17, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson said the National Endowment for the Arts “is, in effect, welfare for rich, liberal elites. That's who consumes the products that they produce.”

The NEA has often been targeted by conservatives for elimination, and was once again fingered in President Trump’s budget proposal for defunding.

"Don't you think it's kind of funny that artists who are 'against the grain' and 'thinking for themselves,' all of a sudden they're queuing up for their handouts from taxpayers?" Carlson asked. "Why wouldn't artists just strike out on their own and be independent?"

This is a old, familiar argument floated against the NEA, usually by conservatives who believe the independent government agency ought to be eradicated: It’s just money going to things that only liberals care about. Conservative commentator George Will, who has been arguing for the NEA’s abolishment for a long time, used it as part of his recent case against the NEA in National Review:

The NEA’s effects are regressive, funding programs that are, as Paul Ryan’s House Budget Committee said, “generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier.” A frequently cited study purporting to prove otherwise was meretricious: It stressed income levels of ZIP codes where NEA-funded institutions are, inferring that institutions located in low-income areas are serving low-income people.

The trouble with this argument is that those who make it rarely explain what the NEA actually does, leaving the impression in readers’ and viewers’ minds that the NEA gives handouts to artists so they can make paintings.

Of course, there are arguments to be made for and against federal funding of arts organizations, some of which have more merit than others. But this “rich liberals are the ones who benefit” argument — which implies that rich liberals are the only ones who benefit, because they are the only ones who care about art — is not a good one, even setting aside the implication that anyone who’s not a rich liberal doesn’t care about classical music, literature, or dance.

"The NEA, while I was there, had a very deep commitment to rural communities, the suburban communities, to urban communities, and to every geography in the United States,” Jamie Bennett told Vox by phone. Bennett was chief of staff and director of public affairs at the NEA for four years under Rocco Landesman, who chaired the NEA from 2009 to 2012.

“The NEA makes a grant in pretty much every congressional district in the United States — coastal, non-coastal, and everything in between. There are actually limits on what percentage of the NEA dollars can go to any single state,” Bennett said. “It’s a reality borne out by the data: The NEA does fund art and culture in every kind of community across the United States.”

The truth told by the data about the NEA’s processes and grantees is complex: The grants go to all sorts of communities, and their greatest value to institutions that aren’t “elite” is in helping attract additional private funding on both the national and local level to communities that might otherwise be overlooked.

A look at the NEA’s granting data shows a focus on broad, diverse, accessible programming

The NEA’s granting setup is relatively simple, and designed for two purposes: one, to make sure the funds are spread as widely as possible; and two, to help smaller organizations in particular attract interest from foundations and philanthropists.

People familiar with the NEA’s granting process frequently attest that receiving an NEA grant helps attract attention from private funders — the agency acts as a kind of imprimatur for agencies across the country, which points to projects worth funding in all kinds of regional contexts.

Miami Arts Center Could Suffer Funding Setback Under Trump's Proposed Budget Cuts To Nat'l Arts Endowment
A patron of the Bakehouse Art Complex in Miami, which would experience a funding cut under President Trump’s proposed budget.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Here, in brief, is how the funds are dispersed:

  • Sixty percent of the NEA’s grants are made, usually in amounts from $10,000 to $100,000, to support specific projects that institutions around the country are undertaking — at least one per congressional district. The grant application process is highly competitive, and the NEA tends to grant less money than requested. Victoria Hutter, assistant press director at the NEA, told Vox that “awarding less than is requested but funding more projects is an effort to be as strategic as possible with our grantmaking funds, working to be an effective steward of public dollars.”
  • The NEA’s grants are concentrated in a few key areas deemed most key to the public interest, including locally driven initiatives for community renewal and resourcing underserved populations. Most applications are required to secure matching funds — from private foundations, philanthropists, and so on — to be considered. A very small number of grants are made directly to poets and translators; all other grants go through institutions, and have since the late 1990s.
  • The rest of the NEA’s grant money — 40 percent, by law — is given to regional, state, and local arts agencies, so they can in turn run their own grant programs.

The NEA’s granting history (in remarkably granular detail) is freely available on its website, for about the past two decades of grants. You, and anyone else with an internet connection, can find it all here.

The data tells an interesting story. In fiscal year 2016, about 40 percent of the NEA’s money went to programs in high-poverty neighborhoods, and 36 percent of the grants went to organizations for projects aimed at underserved populations — people with disabilities, veterans, prisoners, and so on. A third of the projects receiving grants were specifically designed to reach low-income audiences.

Laura Zabel, who directs the Minnesota-based organization Springboard for the Arts, told Vox about her experience with NEA grants. In 2011, with the help of a $25,000 NEA grant, Springboard opened an office in rural Fergus Falls, Minnesota, a community of about 13,000 people. The town had experienced economic difficulty when a major employer, a state mental hospital, moved out after being in town for almost 100 years. (In the 2016 presidential election, the county in which Fergus Falls is located voted 64 percent Trump and 28 percent Clinton.)

Springboard launched a multi-year project called Imagine Fergus Falls in partnership with residents, the local historical society, the public health agency, and other groups. Through the project, Fergus Falls residents came together to think about their town’s economic future and imagine ways to redevelop the property left behind by the hospital.

“Those big storytelling opportunities for a community to really tell its story in its own words — right now, that seems like almost the most important work we can do,” Zabel said. “I think [Fergus Falls] is a great example of artists leading the way toward new economic development — toward reimagining what spaces and places can be and helping a community think and look forward together in a way that's really directly linked to the economic development of the city, and of the community.”

According to Zabel, the NEA grant helped Springboard attract attention to the Fergus Falls project. Between 2011 and 2016, the NEA made four grants totaling $145,000, which Zabel says helped Springboard leverage an additional $1.155 million in local and national private philanthropy — about a 10:1 return on the NEA’s investment. “Without the NEA's support, we would have had a much harder time attracting private dollars for this work,” Zabel said.

"The NEA does an exceptional job at making sure that money does get to rural communities, the heartland, the center of the country communities,” said Zabel. “Because they do that, other foundations and other private philanthropy follows their lead.”

Jeffrey Woodward, director of Dallas Theater Center, agrees. DTC is the leading not-for-profit professional theater in North Texas, and depends on both private and public funding for its programs, which include outreach to local schoolchildren and partnerships with local theater companies to develop new work about issues such as immigration that matter in the community.

“What some people don't realize about the NEA is that half of the appropriation goes directly to state arts agencies and is re-granted by them,” he says. “The perception in some circles is, ‘Oh, it's just funding New York institutions or East Coast institutions.’ That couldn't be further from the truth. It's truly a democratic agency. It's leveraged private philanthropy at a significant level.”

"A lot of funders don't have the capacity to do a rigorous assessment or evaluation of a cultural institution that submits a request for support from them. But you get that with the NEA. So there's a panel process. There's financial information you have to provide. There's artistic information. It's not an easy grant to get,” Woodward said. “And so when you get a grant from the NEA, it essentially can serve, particularly for maybe a newer organization or a smaller organization, what essentially is a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. So you can then go to a funder. They may not know a lot about you, but they see that you got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and that's meaningful for them."

The NEA has supported many projects with small grants aimed at creating partnerships between public and private funding sources

In numerous cases, partial NEA funding helps further projects in smaller, non-coastal, and often economically disadvantaged communities throughout the country. (Other similar projects are supported indirectly by the NEA, through grants given by the regional, state, and local arts agencies that re-grant money they receive from the NEA.) Here is a sampling of projects that received NEA grants recently:

  • The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra received a grant of $15,000 to support its Young People’s Concerts, a program through which the orchestra works with music teachers in the Anchorage School District to perform concerts for elementary school students, create study materials for classroom instructors, and offer teacher workshops.
  • The Missoula Writing Collaborative in Montana received a grant of $20,000 to support creative writing residencies, led by professional writers, for students learning traditional forms of poetry on the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes.
  • The South Bend Museum of Art in Indiana received a grant of $10,000 supporting an initiative to work with partners in the region — including the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame; schools in South Bend; and a senior living community — to conduct lifelong learning programs and hold a series of family days at the museum.
  • The Broward County Board of County Commissioners in Florida received $15,000 to support a symposium exploring Latin America's impact on the arts economy of South Florida, with speakers with expertise in policy, business, and government, reflecting a range of perspectives.
  • The city of New Orleans received at $10,000 grant to support a retrospective appraisal of career paths and obstacles in six segments of New Orleans's local cultural economy: culinary arts, design, entertainment, literary arts and humanities, preservations, and visual arts and crafts — all aimed at allowing working artists' needs and experiences to be more fully reflected in New Orleans's economic policies in the future.
  • Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania received a $15,000 grant to support a mobile book arts exhibition called “Structures & Stories: Contemporary Book Arts.” The program features work by artists from the area in a 48-foot semitrailer that travels to schools and public sites in rural and suburban communities in Bucks County, showcasing bookmaking arts, printmaking, collage, photography, and more, as well as professional development for teachers.
  • John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, received a $10,000 grant to support an annual festival called “Giving Voice: A Festival of Writing and the Arts.” It’s a rural, multidisciplinary festival intended to serve economically disadvantaged high school students from Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas with panels, free public readings, a folk music performance, and artist-led workshops covering nonfiction, fiction, poetry, songwriting, media arts, and other art forms.
  • Alabama Southern Community College in Monroeville, Alabama, received a $10,000 grant to support an arts outreach program called BRAVO, which includes workshops for college and high school students with guest artists from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (a regional theater company) and the Sounds of Mobile show choir. The program is designed to bring cultural activities and education to a rural and economically disadvantaged five-county service area in southwestern Alabama.
  • The First Peoples Fund in Rapid City, South Dakota, received a $100,000 grant to support its Rolling Rez Arts mobile unit, which provides artists on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota with art classes, professional arts business and entrepreneurship training, asset building, financial education, and mobile banking. The program is conducted in partnership with the Lakota Fund, which teaches credit workshops, conducts financial education and online marketing trainings, offers business success coaching for artists, provides interested and qualified artists with financing through their Artist Builder Microloan and Credit Builder Loan products, and offers matched savings accounts, known as individual development accounts or IDAs, to artists to help them learn to save and build assets.

NEA grants that benefit more “elite,” coastal institutions often make the granted programming more broadly accessible nationwide

17th Annual NEA Jazz Masters Awards Concert
The Clayton Brothers Quintet performs live onstage during the 17th annual NEA Jazz Masters awards and concert on January 12, 2007, in New York City.
Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Now, because the NEA makes grants in every congressional district — and by simple math, some places have more people, money, and arts organizations than other areas — it certainly is true that rich, liberal elites (and poor and middle-class people in places that lean blue) also benefit from programs that receive grants from the NEA.

However, it’s worth noting that many of the projects the NEA funds at “elite,” wealthy coastal institutions are aimed at making the programming those organizations already do more accessible to a broader public — that is, at extending their reach beyond elites.

Take New York City’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which is about as elite an organization as one could find. The society received a grant in each of the NEA’s fall and spring granting periods in 2015 and 2016. However, each grant was aimed at supporting the recording, streaming, and broadcasting of programs of music by composers such as Beethoven and Bartok, which would then be available to anyone who was interested and had access to an internet connection or radio — rather than keeping the music available only to New Yorkers wealthy enough to afford a ticket to a chamber music concert.

The actual NEA granting data shows that its focus isn’t on “rich, liberal elites” — and in fact, if the NEA were to be eliminated, wealthy coastal art lovers would likely be the least affected, partly because programs in their areas can more easily attract private philanthropy and funding. But programs that focus on less elite art, and the audience for it, would be much more likely to suffer. Arguments for and against federal funding of arts organizations can certainly be made — but this one doesn’t have any legs.