A million years ago, when I was a very little girl, my mother and grandmother — art lovers both — took me to Raleigh to visit North Carolina’s newly minted Museum of Art. Ours is the first state-funded art museum in the country, and its much grander current incarnation is the envy of states, even nations. That visit instantly turned a preschooler into a person who has sought out art in almost every place I have ever been. My first glance at that state-owned office-building-turned-art-museum took in a huge Gainsborough portrait of a woman wearing a full-skirted white satin dress. My mother saved that fine English painting just in the nick of time by scooping me up before I got my grubby little hands on what I thought was gleaming
I was hooked.
A generation later, a Precious Jewel wept every afternoon when Mr. Rogers put on his cardigan to signal the end of that day’s program. He would toddle to the TV sobbing, “Don’t go, Mr. Rogers,” with such emotion that I eventually learned to get him out of the room just before the goodbye music began.
He, too, was hooked.
Such is the power of art and culture. We cannot quantify or measure them, but they enrich our lives and separate us from non-human beings on God’s green Earth.
Arts and culture are not food, water, clothing or shelter, but few among us want to
do without them.
It is now 2017 with a new generation of Americans eager to learn, but the president’s proposed budget would decimate funding for arts and humanities and public media. It would cut funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to a big fat zero and eliminate the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities altogether. No other president in our history has ever proposed such a drastic measure. Goodbye Bert and Ernie. Goodbye Downton Abbey and other Masterpiece Theater programming. Goodbye partnerships with state and local arts organizations like Arts Councils. Goodbye financial support for libraries, colleges and universities, and documentaries like Ken Burns’ The Civil War, viewed by 38 million Americans.
Let’s put the money into perspective.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting received $445 million in the last federal budget, with the Endowments getting about $148 million each. That entire budget was a whopping $4 trillion, of which our investment in public broadcasting and the arts and humanities comprised a mere fraction. According to CPB President Patricia Harrison, that investment amounts to $1.35 per American per year. That federal funding is used to leverage contributions from other public and private sources, giving federal dollars more bang for each and every buck.
Sounds like a deal to me.
No less a heavyweight than retired Army General Stanley McChrystal, hardly a stranger to the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg community and certainly no effete wuss, thinks so, too. McChrystal shared his thoughts earlier this month in an op-ed column published in the New York Times. He made a strong case for public broadcasting, noting among other points that more American children do not attend preschool than do, and that public television is an important teaching tool for them. McChrystal also addressed a reality that keeps me up at night — our lack of national common experience, in other words, little national “glue.”
The general wrote, “Trust among Americans and for many of our institutions is at its lowest levels in generations, and stereotyping and prejudices have become substitutes for knowing and understanding one another as individuals. … Why would we degrade or destroy an institution that binds us together?”
The president’s proposed budget includes a massive increase in defense spending, which the general also acknowledged. “We need a strong civil society where the connection between different people and groups is firm and vibrant, not brittle and divided. We need to defend against weaknesses within and enemies without, using the tools of civil society and hard power. We don’t have to pick one over the other.”
No need to panic yet. Congress will parse and dissect the president’s proposal, and you can bet your bottom dollar that public broadcasting and arts advocates will be crawling the halls to lobby against the president’s stunning proposals. But there is plenty of room for concern. The CPB, NEA and NEH have been part of our national fabric for half a century, enriching and challenging Americans rich and poor, urban and rural, of all backgrounds and experiences.
We undo them at our peril.