Ka-ching: Money for the NEA

Bucking the Trump administration's call to eliminate federal funding for the arts and humanities, Congress approves a slight raise for each

FRIDAY, MARCH 23 UPDATE: It’s a done deal. President Trump signed the spending bill into law after first threatening to veto it on Friday morning in a move that “left both political parties in Washington reeling and his own aides bewildered about Mr. Trump’s contradictory actions.”

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Money makes the world go ’round, as the song from Cabaret puts it, and that includes the cultural world, which seems perpetually a day late and a dollar short in the distribution of it. It tends to be a case of trickle-down in reverse: Because museums and performance organizations generally exist on lean budgets – especially in the United States, where government cultural support pales compared to that in most European countries – ticket prices spike and the artists themselves are often poorly paid.

The museum world has been abuzz about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to charge non-New Yorkers $25 for admission, scrapping a decades-old policy of charging a “suggested” donation that allowed people of limited means (plus a few freeloaders) to engage with great art. The museum responds, in a nutshell, that it has no choice: It has to cover its costs.

Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey performing “Money Makes the World Go
‘Round” in the 1972 movie version of “Cabaret.”

Ticket prices on Broadway are routinely high enough to scrape the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but in the sellers’ market for a hot property like Hamilton they soar to obscene levels, mitigated slightly in national touring productions like the one that settled into Portland’s Keller Auditorium on Tuesday. (Look for T.J. Acena’s ArtsWatch review soon, and catch Amy Wang’s interview in The Oregonian with Joseph Morales, who stars as Hamilton in this version and began his theatrical career at Southern Oregon University, playing the Emcee in Cabaret.)

At the federal level, arts funding has been held as a political prisoner for many years, a favorite target for potshots from the right. The National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, despite their tiny slices of the budget pie (0.004 percent each in the last biennium) are routinely excoriated as wasteful and somehow unAmerican. Pressure to kill the endowments outright (as well as federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) has accelerated during the Trump admininstration, with the president himself advocating for their elimination: Graham Bowley laid out the issues nicely back in January in the New York Times. Despite all the political noise, Congress has as usual fought back, maintaining a small level of federal support.

On Wednesday night, faced with yet another looming government shutdown, Congressional leaders agreed on a $1.3 trillion spending bill, with a midnight Friday deadline to pass it. And the word from Washington on Thursday morning, as conveyed by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, is something of an expected relief: Congress has released its final funding plan for fiscal year 2018, and it includes a $3 million bump for each endowment, to $152.8 million each. It’s not the final word. But, as the group puts it, “Today and tomorrow, the House and Senate are expected to vote on this agreement, and the President is expected to sign it into law. This will bring a final close to FY 2018—a long and bumpy roller coaster ride, and delivered five months late.” The budget also calls for $445 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and $240 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Trump’s budget proposal had targeted all four for termination.

Money keeps this little corner of the world going ’round, at least for now. Votes help, too.

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