Trump reportedly wants to get rid of the NEA, which has revitalized communities

Studio 360
The opening ceremony of Spoleto Festival USA in 2013.

The opening ceremony of Spoleto Festival USA in 2013 is pictured here.

Just before President Donald Trump took office in January, the Washington, DC publication The Hill reported that the new administration was drawing up sweeping plans to cut government spending. One target? The National Endowment for the Arts, which the article says would be “eliminated entirely” under the proposed changes, along with its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities.

But Dana Gioia says there would be no fiscal advantage to eliminating the NEA, a federal agency that promotes the arts and arts education. In fact, he calls the arts agency “probably one of the cheapest economic development programs the United States has.”

“That's my Trumpian argument,” he says.

Gioia is California’s poet laureate, so his support of the NEA comes as no real surprise. But more tellingly, he’s familiar with the agency’s balance books: A self-described moderate Republican, he helmed the NEA from 2003 to 2009, as an appointee of George W. Bush.

“The thing about it is that the NEA is very efficiently run nowadays,” he says. “It's got a very small staff. Most of the money goes out the door.”

In 2016, the NEA received $148 million from the federal government. That might sound like a big number, but that represented just 0.003 percent of all federal spending, according to The Washington Post. 

That federal money provides for grants to individual artists as well as arts groups, Gioia explains. “And for the arts groups, these grants are foundational because it gives them the credibility that these national panels have chosen them as one of the leading groups in the United States.”

“So the thing about it is that the NEA does not subsidize the American arts. It doesn't have enough money to subsidize anybody. But what it does do is serve as a catalyst for local groups to raise money in their own community, to serve that community in the way that the community wants to be served.”

While its funding may be a drop in the proverbial bucket, Gioia says the NEA “is reaching every state, every congressional district, every community in the United States.” He cites the agency’s Shakespeare in American Communities program, which has brought professional Shakespeare productions to approximately 4,000 towns across America.

“So, the good thing about saving the NEA right now is that there are no controversies,” he says. “And we have a tradition of bipartisan support.”

In fact, Gioia says the NEA has historically done better under Republican presidents than Democratic ones. “If you go back … to the Reagan and Bush era, and actually the early Clinton days, the endowment had, in terms of current dollars, about three times as much as it does now.”

But for Gioia, the NEA’s legacy isn’t just bipartisan — it’s economically revitalizing. He calls Charleston, South Carolina, the most impressive example in the US of using arts for economic development.

“Now, if you'd gone to Charleston 40 years ago, it was a dying community,” he says, before explaining the root of its remarkable turnaround. Charleston’s mayor talked to the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, he says, who was convinced to locate his Spoleto arts festival in the city (with NEA support).

“In the course of 40 years, the presence of this festival has transformed Charleston into the most attractive city in the southern United States,” Gioia says. “You have galleries, restaurants, you know, a tremendously positive tax base, active commercial zone and huge local employment.”

For Gioia, case studies like Charleston underscore a simple point: Supporting the arts is a sound investment.

“The fact is that when you do something that's positive, it tends to be positive in many different ways,” he says.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360.