School of the Arts Alumni Respond to Proposed NEA/NEH Cuts

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Back in January, shortly before Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, multiple outlets including ARTNews and Variety reported that the incoming White House was rumored to be compiling a budget that, in addition to making other cuts, would defund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The endowments, which were created in 1965 under Lyndon B. Johnson, offer grants to artists and professionals working in the humanities with the aim, in the words of the NEA Website, of giving “Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.”

Earlier this month, when the White House released its first proposed federal budget, those rumors were proven to be true. The budget calls for eliminating both the NEA and the NEH, as well as cutting off funding to PBS and NPR by eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As the New York Times reported, “It was the first time a president has called for ending the endowments” since they were first signed into law. The combined budgets for both endowments is $300 million, according to the Times. The federal government’s annual budget for discretionary spending (in which the endowments are included) is $1.1 trillion.

The elimination of the NEA and NEH is by no means certain: Trump’s budget will have to be approved by Congress, and several arts leaders and organizations, as well as figures in the Republican Party, have made recent statements in support of federal funding of the arts.

But if approved, such cuts would be felt around the country, as well as here at Columbia. Indeed, over the years, several School of the Arts affiliates have received grants from the NEA and NEH. Most recently, in January, it was announced that two graduates of the Writing Program, Camille Rankine ’09 and Diana Marie Delgado ’08, as well as a graduate of Columbia College, the poet Morgan Parker ’10, had been named NEA grant recipients.

Rankine, a poet, says receiving the grant has allowed her to “pursue opportunities in poetry with a freedom I've never had before.” But she also points out that the endowment supports broader communities, not simply individual artists. “I know that NEA funding has helped support a lot of incredible writers, but they also do so much more than individual grants. If we lose the NEA, we'd also lose a lot of NEA-funded organizations and programs that provide access to the arts in communities across the country. I think sometimes people see the NEA as funding only these lofty, inscrutable projects—but a lot of what they make possible is the art, music, and literature that enrich people's everyday lives.”

Claire Beams ’06, who received an NEA grant in 2013, says she would not have been able to publish her 2016 story collection What We Show We Have Learned without the government’s support of Lookout Books, her publisher, and South Arts, which sent her on her book tour. “But the NEA had already changed the writing part of my life before all this,” she says. “Back in 2013, when I had a new baby and a novel I'd spent eight years writing that was, it was becoming apparent, not going to sell. The phone call telling me I'd won an NEA prose fellowship arrived at that fragile moment and gave me the time and childcare I needed to write and revise the stories that would become We Show What We Have Learned. It also gave me faith that the stories were worth writing and revising. Without those gifts at that particular time, I'm confident my book wouldn't exist. The NEA supports art and affirms that art is worth supporting, and in both roles is indispensable to the kind of world I want to live in.”

Other School of the Arts affiliates who have recieved NEA and NEH grants over the years include Writing Program alumna Yvette Sieget ’07; Writing Program alumnus Martin Pousson ’99; Writing Program professor Susan Bernofsky; Visual Arts professor Jon Kessler; Visual Arts professor Shelly Silver; and Theater alumnus Darko Tresnjak ’98; and more.

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Columbia University School of the Arts offers MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing, an MA degree in Film Studies, a joint JD/MFA degree in Theatre Management & Producing, a PhD degree in Theatre History, Literature, and Theory, and an interdisciplinary program in Sound Arts.