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Funding for the NEA is imperiled—again. How will this affect the arts community?
By Fred Cohn
Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Sideswiped Trump Opera hdl 917
Illustration by Robert Neubecker

THE MAY 23 BUDGET PROPOSAL from Donald J. Trump’s administration offered no surprising news for the American opera community, but it was no cause for celebration either. The outline confirmed what the White House had already announced: the president seeks to dissolve the National Endowment for the Arts, the half-century-old government agency that bestows grants to arts organizations in all fifty states. Meanwhile, the administration’s proposed changes to the federal tax code may weaken incentives for the charitable donations that opera companies rely on for revenue.

The NEA’s direct financial impact on American opera is small: its total budget (just short of $150 million) funds grants to organizations across the arts spectrum—museums, dance troupes, theater companies, jazz collectives, film festivals. But its funding for opera is significant in scope. The agency’s grants for fiscal year 2017 ranged from $10,000 for Anchorage Opera’s production of Glory Denied to $90,000 in support of the Met’s Rusalka. Moreover, half of its grants go directly to state arts councils, which disburse funds to opera companies. For instance, the Missouri Arts Council, which bestowed a $96,213 grant on Opera Theatre of Saint Louis for fiscal year 2017, receives roughly thirteen percent of its funding from the NEA. 

In the grand scheme of government spending, the NEA represents hardly a pittance—just 0.003 percent of the federal budget, which comes to forty-six cents per American citizen. In fact, its budget this year is only a bit larger than the $120 million that Congress has apportioned to personal security for the president and his family. As inconsequential as its cost may be, though, the agency has long been a target for conservative politicians. Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981 with a plan, soon jettisoned, to eliminate the NEA; later, the NEA became the focal point in the “culture wars,” castigated for its funding of projects such as Karen Finley’s sexually explicit performance art and an exhibition of Robert Mapple-thorpe’s homoerotic photography. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina put forward an amendment preventing federal funds from being used to “promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials ... or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion.’’

The amendment was ultimately defeated, but the agency learned its lesson, and for the past two decades it has avoided controversial projects. Nonetheless, its existence has remained a thorn in the side of hardcore conservatives. “Something in our Puritan roots doesn’t lend itself to support for the arts,” says Joseph Polisi, outgoing president of the Juilliard School and author of The Artist as Citizen. “When the founders put this country together, they wanted to reject all trappings of monarchy—and institutional support for the arts in Europe came out of the monarchies. 

“Fast forward to 1989 and the Helms amendment. I think that still has an impact on American politics. You will rarely find a politician who comes out for national support of the arts. Obama talked about the arts in his first campaign, but as soon as he got into office, that quickly went away. Ironically, the last president to support the arts was Nixon.” 

“This is a debate about the role of the federal government,” says Marc A. Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, the national service organization for professional opera companies. “In an era when people debate whether the federal government should have a role in education, or in the physical health of its citizens, it is logical that by extension they’d have an argument about whether there should be a role for government in the arts. There are a lot of people who believe that support of the arts is something that should be left to the individual. They feel the government does not have a right to take taxpayer dollars and then decide what arts organizations get support.

“The existence of the NEA conveys that the arts matter in our society,” he says—“that the federal government deems creativity, virtuosity and self-expression as qualities that matter, that we are not a country just of practical concerns but a country that values the development of human talent to the fullest extent possible. Does every citizen pay attention to the messages that are implicit in the NEA’s existence? No. But it is a potent underlying message that the arts community counts on.”

THE VALUE OF AN NEA GRANT to an opera company can far transcend its monetary worth. The peer-reviewed awards bestow not only funds but significant prestige.  “The NEA is one of our most important funders, not only because of the dollars, but the impact,” says Timothy O’Leary, general director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. “It serves as a rallying point in Saint Louis. We can say, ‘This is an investment from outside our community,’ which has an effect on donors and their willingness to be generous.” OTSL has received direct NEA grants averaging $83,000 per year over the past five years.  

“The people deciding whether to give you an NEA grant aren’t a bunch of bureaucrats but a jury of your peers who have a boots-on-the-ground knowledge of the field,” says Ned Canty, general director of Opera Memphis. “You can point to the grant and say, ‘It’s not just us. There’s something in this project that’s worthy of recognition.’”

Opera Columbus received a $12,000 NEA grant this year toward its innovative collaboration with the Juilliard School, which provides performance opportunities for the conservatory’s Artist Diploma in Opera Studies program. The award was particularly significant in light of the near-fatal financial crisis that the company endured earlier this decade. “As a company that has been rebuilding itself, we’ve had a lot to prove,” says artistic director Peggy Kriha Dye. “We’ve had to regain the trust of the corporate community and our traditional patron base. Being able to go in and say, ‘We have an NEA grant’ does a lot of the work for me.”

Prestige aside, the funds the NEA provides can have a real impact on the bottom line, especially at lower-budget companies. “Arts organizations operate on a razor’s edge, and a diminution in income can mean a performance, a production, a job,” says Scorca. “There isn’t huge elasticity in arts organizations’ budgets. Any reduction is difficult to replace, and if not replaced, results in a diminution of public service.”

Canty says a $15,000 NEA grant for Opera Memphis’s annual “30 Days of Opera” festival, which this month offers free performances throughout the community, covers the cost of salary and housing for two singers. “It helps us hit one of our plateaus,” he says. “If something happens, and we don’t have that money, how will we replace it?” 

For all the alarm about the NEA’s possible demise, the White House’s proposal has gotten pushback from unexpected quarters. Mike Huckabee, the arch-conservative, Trump-supporting ex-governor of Arkansas, published a Washington Post editorial that argued decisively for the continuation of NEA funding. “To someone such as me—for whom an early interest in music and the arts became a lifeline to an education and academic success,” he wrote, “this money is not expendable, extracurricular or extraneous. It is essential.”

One irony of the controversy is that so much NEA activity supports projects in solid Trump territory. An April 25 New York Times feature, by the newspaper’s classical-music reporter Michael Cooper, examined five NEA-funded projects in deep-red South Dakota and uncovered an extraordinary level of support for the agency. “I saw a Hamlet performance in a totally charming jewel-box theater in Spearfish, South Dakota,” Cooper says. “The head of the theater came out to give a speech, saying, ‘This is brought to you by the NEA.’ There was a huge cheer in the audience. I knew the arts people supported it, but I didn’t think it would get cheers from the whole crowd.”

AT THE BEGINNING OF MAY, a bipartisan congressional bill not only assured NEA funding through FY2017 but tacked an additional $2 million onto the budget, suggesting that the agency’s extinction is by no means a foregone conclusion. “The equation of the moment is, ‘Do you want to use any political capital to squash this tiny entity?’” Juilliard’s Polisi asks.

Still, the interim measure offers no guarantee of continued support. “It’s significant when a Republican Congress ups the appropriation, when they know the administration wants to zero it out for the following year,” Cooper says. “But who knows what will happen when they start trading horses?”

Even though the NEA represents the closest that the U.S. comes to the European model of state support for opera companies, the federal government in fact indirectly provides a huge amount of funding to the field through the charitable tax deduction. Scorca calls it the “forgone subsidy”—the revenue the government forgoes when taxpayers write off their donations. “We have a tax code that allows for a democratic approach to government funding,” he says. “There are so many cultural traditions in this country that a federal agency can’t invest in any particular patrimony. It is up to the individual to choose which arts to support, whether it’s jazz or dance or opera, whether it’s salsa or R&B or classical music.” 

It is impossible to calculate the exact value of the “forgone subsidy” to opera companies; it depends to a considerable extent on the tax brackets of individual contributors. But a rough estimate puts the figure at more than $100 million—i.e., a good deal more than the portion of the NEA’s budget that gets funneled to opera. American opera companies as a rule get considerably less than half their budgets from earned revenue, which makes individual donors—and the tax breaks they receive—a dominating factor in the field’s economy. “What has made the American system of supporting arts organizations so strong,” says Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s O’Leary, “is the fact that people have a tax incentive to be charitable.”

The current White House tax proposals avoid the most disquieting element (from an opera-industry point of view) of Barack Obama’s 2014 budget blueprint: its proposed cap on all charitable deductions at 28 percent of income would definitely have affected some top-tier donors. But two changes to the tax code under the Trump plan could still put a dent in donations. A lowering of the top tax bracket from 40 to 35 percent means that, come tax time, high-rolling donors would get less bang for their charitable buck. Meanwhile, a doubling of the standard deduction—from $6,300 to $12,600 for single people—would give lower-income individuals less incentive to itemize their deductions, and consequently less reason to give to charity. According to a study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Trump’s proposed tax reform would reduce charitable giving across the board by $13 billion annually, or roughly 3.5 percent of Americans’ donations.

Even if the impact of such a restructuring isn’t devastating, it could have a depressive effect on opera-company operations. “All of us are taking shots in the dark,” says Canty. “My fear is that the response from an organization like ours would be to assume the worst—which runs a risk. If you start budgeting for the worst-case scenario, you won’t have the money to fulfill your mission.”

As of press time, the ultimate fate of Trump’s initiatives remains unclear. The across-the-aisle FY2017 appropriation for the NEA is a heartening sign for the arts community, but in any case, Trump’s proposals have sent a chill up the spine of the entire arts community. As Polisi says of the NEA: “Getting rid of it is a troubling symbolic gesture that says there is no interest in the arts in American society in 2017.” spacer

Fred Cohn is editor of Opera America. 

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