Senate Coronavirus Stimulus Includes Arts Funding Despite GOP Dismissing It As Frivolous

The Senate passed a sweeping, bipartisan economic stimulus package late Wednesday that, among other provisions, allocates $75 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s a sharp contrast from President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans’ previous attempts to put arts funding on the chopping block, but advocacy organizations said it’s not enough — particularly for smaller arts institutions that may not survive the economic effects of prolonged closures.

Trump’s yearly budget proposals have regularly included cuts to funding for the NEA, which devotes much of its budget to supporting local and regional arts projects and organizations through grants. But Republicans have often dismissed arts funding as frivolous and niche.

Those dismissals came up again in negotiations over the coronavirus economic package this week, with some Republicans saying Democrats’ push to include such provisions were “liberal pet projects.”

The final bill also includes $75 million each for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as well as $50 million for museums and libraries. It allocates $25 million for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., another major point of contention.

The Kennedy Center — which houses the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera and serves as a major hub for local arts, culture and education programs — has shuttered until at least May 10.

“Because the Center was created by an Act of Congress and we exist as a living presidential memorial, the Center’s economic model is different than most arts organizations,” the Kennedy Center said in a statement before the Senate vote Wednesday. “As we fulfill our congressional mandate, we rely on ticket revenues and contributions to offset nearly every aspect of our business, including presenting live (often free) performances and offering education programs for millions across the country.”

“The ability to deliver on our mandated mission is at risk,” the center continued. “As a result, federal relief funding is the only way we will be in a position to reopen the nation’s cultural center when our government officials tell us it is safe to do so.”

Republicans had criticized Democrats for initially proposing $35 million for the Kennedy Center. Michael McAdams, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, went so far as to say on Tuesday, “People are dying and all Nancy Pelosi and Democrats can focus on is ripping off the American taxpayer to help pay for their liberal wish list of government handouts.”

But the reality is that the official request for the money came from Tracy Henke, a former top aide to Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Before her current job as the vice president of the Office of Government Relations & Protocol for the Kennedy Center, Henke was the legislative director for Blunt, who is on the Kennedy Center board of trustees, which includes members of both political parties. 

It was Henke who wrote an email to top House and Senate Appropriations Committee staff earlier this month asking for “quick assistance” for the arts center, which she said is projected to lose at least $20 million in revenue and incur debt of up to $12 million by the end of May.

“I am hoping since we are a unique federal entity, and our urgent need would be considered small compared to many others, that immediate assistance of $20 million at a minimum could be included in one of the bills the Congress will work on in the next week or two,” Henke wrote in her email, a copy of which was obtained by HuffPost. “It is imperative to note — without having cash on hand we have no idea how we will reopen.”

On Wednesday, Trump defended the funding for the Kennedy Center, praising the organization for doing “a beautiful job, an incredible job” and explaining that he supported the funding in part because “the Democrats have treated us fairly.”

The bill, which is expected to pass the House later this week, also includes provisions to support small businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, that pledge not to lay off their workers — which could apply to arts and culture institutions.

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to particularly devastate smaller or more specialized arts organizations, which often don’t have large endowments and don’t get a flood of donations every year.

The American Alliance of Museums, which advocated for $4 billion in congressional funding for museums, estimated that as much as 30% of museums, especially in smaller and more rural areas, will have to permanently close because of the economic costs of the pandemic.

Some state and municipal governments have announced relief programs for artists and arts organizations, like in San Francisco and Boston.

Many arts unions and advocacy organizations have had to provide emergency support to their members. For example, the Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing thousands of theater actors and stage managers, launched an emergency fund on Tuesday to help its members. Most of them are now out of work, as Broadway and theaters across the country have gone dark.

In a statement Thursday, the union praised the Senate’s bill while stressing its members would “keep advocating for broader arts funding at all levels, so that employers have the resources they need to quickly recover and reopen when the time comes.”

Other arts groups and workers have had to turn to crowdfunding, including the Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund, which raised $75,000 to assist now-unemployed hourly workers at independent movie theaters and film-related organizations in New York.

Jen Bendery contributed reporting.

If you’re a small or regional arts organization grappling with the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, email [email protected].

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