Every new presidential administration offers a fresh opportunity to rethink the purpose, value and budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal government’s arts funding agency since its establishment in 1965. In 2016, Congress allotted the NEA $147,949,000, below its 1992 high of $175,954,680 but better than the $97,627,600 appropriation in 2000 when what were then called the “culture wars” was at its height and the agency was punished by conservative legislators for its direct and indirect support of more edgy art forms. President Ronald Reagan vowed to “abolish” the NEA but didn’t and, since its days as a punching bag for the right wing, it largely has been forgotten.
The agency’s stated goals are “supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education.” More money for the agency would be good to help those efforts, and I especially would like to see much more done to make the arts a greater part of public school education: More opportunities to learn a musical instrument, the reintroduction of art and music appreciation classes, more required arts classes on the curriculum, theater and dance performances in the schools. We live at a time when symphony orchestras, opera companies, dance and theater troupes around the country are struggling financially due to diminishing attendance, the result of an aging audience. Shut down permanently over the past 15 years are the Florida Philharmonic, San Jose Symphony, Tulsa Philharmonic, Colorado Springs Symphony and the San Antonio Symphony, while bankruptcies have afflicted the New York City Opera and the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Columbus, Detroit, Honolulu, Indianapolis, Miami, Milwaukee, New Mexico, Philadelphia and Syracuse. I’m certain some have been overlooked. Orchestral music, older and more contemporary, is not on the radar of young people who only hear what their pop, country, rap, rock or alt music networks are promoting.
According to a 2010 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics of elementary and secondary schools around the country, 91 percent offer music instruction and 84 percent provide visual art classes, with drama and dance far less frequently available. Those percentages do not seem so bad, but what one finds upon closer inspection is that generally there is one music instructor and one visual arts instructor in a given school, regardless of size, doing all the teaching, which results in the choral class or the art class available just once a week. Seventy percent of the surveyed secondary schools required only one credit in some music or art class for graduation, which means that students take their once-a-week chorus in ninth grade and then they are done with the arts.
More congressionally appropriated money for the National Endowment for the Arts could be used to pay conservatory students to perform and give talks at public schools. Aren’t we tired to see tributes to Misty Copeland as the first Black prima ballerina? We should be encouraging more students to try dance than just to praise the one. We could send dancers, musicians, actors and writers into schools, using federal dollars to pay for in-school and after-school programs.
If we want cultural institutions to survive and not just rely on grandparents and the richest donors on the planet, we need to make the arts a priority for the young during the years we have their attention in our public schools. As much as any one-time project grant that the National Endowment for the Arts makes to some nonprofit organization, this focus on arts education will help ensure that the totality of the arts survive and prosper.
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