The Hill has penned an obituary for the National Endowment of the Arts, following its defunding at the hands of the Trump administration and the current Republican-controlled government. As the obit notes, the NEA has been threatened many times before, notably in the 80’s and 90’s following a string of controversial, NEA-funded exhibitions. At the onset of the Reagan Administration, the government tried to give the department, which uses up a tiny amount of the national budget, the ax. Later, controversy boiled when the NEA sponsored an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photos depicting gay men in sexualized and aestheticized fashions.
At the end of the day, the NEA was already a drastically underfunded organization, particularly when compared to government-sponsored art funding in other countries. Still, the move leaves the United States as the only country in the world without a federal arts presence, according to the Hill. That’s pretty shocking.
As I outlined in a previous article, this matters for architecture. The NEA helps fund AIA conferences, design competitions, architecture exhibitions, neighborhood planning initiatives, adaptive reuse of historic buildings and many other things. Find out more here.
We can agree to disagree on that, but generally I think it's the government's responsibility to foster a vibrant society, especially by putting resources towards things that are not traditionally seen as profitable by private enterprise. That goes as much for utility grids and transit as it does for art, in my opinion.
Think of the National Parks. At the time of their creation, all of the best and most beautiful scenery in Europe was privately held by nobility and wealth. Compare that to the US, where our best landscapes are held by the population, for everyone to access. The very wealthy have always had access to fine art because they've always been able to afford to commission it. But this keeps good art out of the view of the general population. Publicly funded art is publicly available art. I'd argue that this makes our society more democratic, more well-rounded, and - for lack of a less subjective term - better.
Overall we're a fantastically wealthy country. Why not put some of it towards things that are simply pleasant every now and then?