Conversation Cut Short: What the Proposed NEA Elimination Means to Online Arts Voices
by Arden Cone
At some point between the turbulent ascent and the in-flight beverages, Rainey Knudson struck up a conversation with her neighbor, an amicable gentleman who worked as a defense contractor. Knudson introduced herself as the founder of Glasstire, a small Houston based arts publication, and mentioned that she was headed to Washington, D.C., to meet with leaders from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Both Knudson and her neighbor depend on funds from the government, but they live in vastly different worlds. “How much money do you get from the NEA?” he asked. She responded that such art grants were very small. “Like a million?” he queried. Try again. Knudson was vying for a grant of $15,000. However small, an NEA grant would allow her to pay her writers and give herself a small stipend. It would go a long way in keeping Glasstire alive.
On that particular trip to Washington, D.C., Knudson’s main concern was whether her organization would receive an NEA grant. Two years later, her worries have blossomed into something far greater: that the NEA might not even see the end of the Trump administration. President Trump’s proposed budget completely eliminates the fifty-two year-old art endowment in an effort to cut government spending— by a factor of 0.001—and satisfy those on the far right, who typically view arts funding as benefiting only the elite. It would be a historic blow to small arts organizations like Glasstire, Knudson’s sixteen year-old nonprofit that brings an honest art dialogue to under-covered regions of Texas.
Since 2010, the NEA has awarded Glasstire five grants, Knudson tells me after firing up QuickBooks on an old PC. She says that the loss of the NEA would be devastating to the arts and insignificant to the United States deficit. In reality, spending on the arts is a mere drop in the budget bucket. “People say that [the deficit] is a death by a thousand cuts, but it’s really death by two big wounds: military and entitlement spending,” says Knudson. “Thinking that we shouldn’t fund the arts is a fundamental misunderstanding. The arts are what makes life worth living.”
Like Knudson, Stephanie Cash is an entrepreneur who has turned her labor of love, an eight year-old online art publication called BURNAWAY, into an authority on Southern art and a legitimate nonprofit—one with a physical office space and paid employees. The money from BURNAWAY’s two NEA grants (awarded in 2013 and 2016) has done more than just bring new programming. Knudson and Cash say these government grants cause an important ripple effect. “It’s like a Better Business Bureau stamp of approval,” says Knudson, meaning that it’s an affirmation of legitimacy, which attracts more and more donors’ public and private funds.
With programming that reaches readers across America, BURNAWAY and Glasstire are crucial voices in the national art dialogue, and they would be deeply affected by the NEA’s elimination. Readers, art institutions, and artists of every discipline will feel the pain. But will you feel the benefit? Not at all.