“Consider a $10,000 grant in 2016 to Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Ariz. The money went to a series of ‘site-responsive performances celebrating the saguaro cactus.’ Yet, you read that right. Attendees stand or sit with a saguaro cactus for an hour in the middle of the desert to discover what the cactus can teach them. Then they share their experiences on social media. #IFellAsleep?” Roger Kimball
“Many projects [funded by US taxpayers] are repellent, including several that cannot be described in a family newspaper.” Ibid
Conservative criticism of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, like the poor according to Mark the Evangelist, is something we will have always with us. Ever since the endowments were created in 1965, they have been a focus of ire for defenders of fiscal prudence and high cultural standards.
In the 1980s, the chief complaint was against the efflorescence of obscenity and leftish political posturing: the pornographic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe or the antics of “performance artist” Karen Finley, who pranced about naked skirling about patriarchy and capitalism.
But “Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts,” a 1997 Heritage Foundation report, got to the nub of the issue. The NEA is “welfare for cultural elitists,” Heritage observed, and the same can be said for the NEH. There is nothing wrong with cultural elitists per se, but why should the taxpayers pick up their tab?
A new report from the Illinois-based initiative Open the Books provides an eye-opening look into the size of that tab. The study includes virtually every grant the NEA and NEH have made since 2016, and additional details about the endowments’ activities as far back as 2009. This includes grants to 71 entities with assets over $1 billion, and one grant to a California enterprise that celebrates the work of a Japanese-American artist best known for declaring: “I consider Osama bin Laden as one of the people that I admire.”
Since its founding in 2011, Open the Books has pursued the elusive goal of governmental transparency by collecting reams of data about local, state and federal expenditures. All that information is then made freely accessible online. Their motto: “Every Dime. Online. In Real Time.”
The group’s earlier initiatives include reports on federal payments to so-called sanctuary cities ($26.74 billion in 2016) and the eight superrich Ivy League universities (nearly $42 billion in federal payments, benefits, and tax advantages over the last several years). Harvard alone sits atop an endowment of $36 billion, and altogether the Ivy League controls tax-exempt endowment funds of some $120 billion, equivalent to $2 million per undergraduate. Yet taxpayers are footing the bill for massive subsidies for these institutions, where the cost of attendance now approaches $70,000 per annum.
The latest Open the Books report reveals that in 2016 federal arts agencies dispensed more than $440 million into the collective maw of their clients. Nearly half, $210 million, went to recipients in only 10 states—a predictable lineup of progressive coastal outfits, mostly clustered in California and New York.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a public charity commanding assets worth nearly $4 billion. The museum’s annual gala is a star-studded event, what one publicist called an “ATM for the Met.” The Met raised some $300 million last year, yet it has received more than $1 million from the NEH since 2009. Why?
There is also the issue of what public funds are being spent to support. Doubtless many initiatives could be worthy, but a lot of the funded projects are inane, repellent or both.
In the inane category, consider a $10,000 grant in 2016 to Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Ariz. The money went to a series of “site-responsive performances celebrating the saguaro cactus.” Yep, you read that right. Attendees stand or sit with a saguaro cactus for an hour in the middle of the desert to discover what the cactus can teach them. Then they share their experiences on social media. #IFellAsleep?
Many projects are repellent, including several that cannot be described in a family newspaper. But how about this? The New York Shakespeare Festival has been much in the public eye this summer for its production of “ Julius Caesar, ” in which the title character is made to look like the president. One Associated Press report describes the carnage: “He looks like Donald Trump . . . moves like Trump . . . is knifed to death on stage, blood staining his white shirt.” Over the past several years the festival has received some $30 million in taxpayer grants, including more than $600,000 from the NEA. Is political propaganda the right use of taxpayer dollars?
Mr. Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposes zeroing out NEA and NEH, but Congress slightly increased spending on both in its recent fiscal 2017 omnibus bill. Why? I suspect it is largely because the spouse of every congressman sits on the board of various nonprofit arts organizations. Some local feminist pottery collective gets $10,000 from the NEA: “You can’t cut that, honey!”
It isn’t much when you think of the $4 trillion federal budget, but this sort of spending adds up. It also leaves the government hostage to exactly the sort of corrupt patronage the Founders warned us about. The investigative work of Open the Books has fomented a revolution in fiscal transparency. Entrenched interests will fight against it tooth and claw, but the rest of us should breathe a grateful sigh of relief.
Mr. Kimball is editor and publisher of the New Criterion and president and publisher of Encounter Books.