As Congress moved to pass a record-breaking economic stimulus package amid the terror, chaos, and carnage of the United States’s ongoing coronavirus crisis, Republican politician and fundraiser Nikki Haley took a moment out of her day to stoke the fires of conservative attacks on art support.
Specifically, Haley, who served as Trump’s foreign UN ambassador until 2018, Tweeted to denounce the tiny emergency bumps given to the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, public television, and the Kennedy Center as irresponsible.
These are the items included in the stimulus bill:
$75 mill for public television/radio
$25 mil for the Kennedy Center
$75 mil for the Natl Endowment for the Arts
$75 mill for the Natl Endowment for the Humanities
How many more people could have been helped with this money?
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) March 26, 2020
This type of culture war posturing is as predictable as it is contemptible right now. Before Armageddon hit, I had just published a piece laying out a long response to renewed attacks on the NEA. The idea that arts funding is “welfare for elites” is an old, old talking point—but it persists because it serves a purpose: to distract from giveaways to corporations and rich people by framing the real problem as lazy cultural elites living off the fat of government subsidies.
Haley’s concern trolling is somewhat pathetic in the context of a $2 trillion federal aid package in that the measly amounts of stimulus awarded to our already anemic government art agencies is so small as to really only matter symbolically. As my colleague Eileen Kinsella reported today, arts groups got less than 5 percent of what they say they needed.
The American Alliance of Museums had floated a $4 billion budget—ambitious but justifiable given the absolutely unprecedented crisis faced by closed museums. “We estimate as many as 30 percent of museums, mostly in small and rural communities, will not re-open without significant and immediate emergency financial assistance,” they wrote.
House Democrats had included $300 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and another $300 million to the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the final tally, it was whittled down to $75 million each.
To give you a sense of how inadequate this is: New York’s Metropolitan Museum alone said it would lose $100 million, and have to lay employees off. Across the country, museum layoffs have already begun. “The majority of organizations don’t have a plan B,” Zannie Voss, the director of Southern Methodist University’s DataArts resource told Julia Halperin and Javier Pes in their article about the crisis faced by museums.
“How many more people could have been helped with this money?” Haley asks. Well, the people who work there are real people.
Let me give you an example that might hit a little close to home.
In Haley’s home state of South Carolina, Spoleto Festival each year brings opera, theater, dance, and chamber, symphonic, choral, and jazz music to all of Charleston. The pandemic has forced the festival to call off its May opening already. “This is truly heartbreaking for our artists, volunteers, staff, and audience,” Spoleto wrote on social media, “however, to continue plans in the face of #COVID19 would be irresponsible.”
The economic impact to South Carolina has been over $1 billion in its 40-year history, according to the former head of the festival, M. Edward Sellers. It has also employed 20 full-time staffers and more than 600 seasonal employees in the past 30 years.
Those are real jobs and real people who are having a chunk of their livelihoods stripped from them, through no fault of their own.
Sellers, it so happens, was making his case in an article for the three years ago defending the National Endowment for the Arts. “I can say that Spoleto would not have started were it not for the NEA,” he wrote. A $35,000 grant got it off the ground. It receives funding now from the South Carolina Arts Commission, which also receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
And if similar grants can see similar arts organizations through a horrible, scarring time, isn’t that worth it? Or is the temptation of sneering point-scoring too great, even in a disaster?