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A Personal Take On The Separation of Culture and State

To Keep or Not To Keep the National Endowment for the Arts

This desire to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts by the Administration has gotten me thinking. It’s gotten me thinking about us as inherently creative beings and it’s gotten me thinking about my grandfather.

First ‘Us’. We might have grown up to become the help or the person calling down for fresh towels, but either way we were all at one point kids in a classroom doing things that come naturally: being curious, creative and imaginative. It’s only as life goes on and we’re subjected to the world around us that we absorb the things that end up informing our philosophy, politics, style, tastes, habits, vices and pleasures.

I’m no anthropologist but that creativity we displayed in the classroom feels a lot like something we inherently possess. It’ll manifest itself differently as we battle our way through life but that basic need for expression remains. Nurturing it won’t make a brush and easel magically appear when inspiration strikes, but it’ll allow us as individuals and as a society to seek it out through Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’, Edward Hopper’s ‘New York Movie’, or Norman Rockwell’s ‘The Problem We All Live With’. It’ll allow us to see and feel what our nation has been through.

The National Endowment for the Arts “gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.” Add to that “…to double their stock portfolios” and perhaps there wouldn’t be this talk of eliminating it.

Kidding aside, Lange, Hopper and Rockwell are the artists of yesterday and we have to decide as a society if it’s important to foster that creativity and imagination for tomorrow. Eliminating the NEA in and of itself won’t destroy America’s cultural heritage or development, but it will send a powerful message from the top: in America there is no value in the arts, other than what rich people decide is valuable.

And on a side note, I wouldn’t be surprised if works by artists who’ve benefitted from this kind of program are prominently displayed on the walls of the very folks who think supporting them has no societal value.

Now onto my grandfather. He drew up the blueprint for the National Endowment for the Arts while cultural advisor to Kennedy so you understand why he came to mind. His idea of a government-sponsored program wasn’t to generate a tangible, near-term return, but to ensure that communities large and small are given the opportunity to participate, exercise and develop their creative capacities.

I’m a cultural entrepreneur which in my case means I think a lot about the role of museums. These are institutions which exist to study, house and exhibit our cultural heritage. Some do it better than others but when done correctly, they recognize that “visitors carry their own culture with them and can use museums and galleries as creative spaces for exploring what that means.” That’s a line from the Tate Modern, but since we can’t all go to London, we need a mechanism at home that ensures this creative outlet.

One way or another we all participate in America’s cultural output so this issue of eliminating the NEA is really one of perception and narrative. Somewhere along the way arts and culture took an elitist turn which alienated a lot of people. Perhaps museums catered too much to the rich, or perhaps the NEA wasn’t effective in communicating what it does, or maybe this whole thing is just a political stunt. But whatever it is, eliminating the program will reduce the value of expression and eat away at the very things that draw the world to America’s shores.

Arts and cultural organizations are where people live, not just in big cities or on the coasts,” which explains why the NEA has directed grants to every single congressional district in America. And all that while taking up a paltry .004% of federal discretionary spending. But even if you told me it was .25% of the annual budget I’d be all for it, the point being that the benefits of preserving and building on America’s cultural legacy will benefit our economy and communities for generations to come.

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