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Who Will Be Better for the Arts: Romney or Obama?

Abortion, tax, gay marriage, the economy, education, health care, immigration, the Middle East, clean energy, terrorism, the budget — these are the issues you’ve probably heard two men running for president discuss a lot recently. But what about the arts? What about those creative endeavors that explore our innermost thoughts and feelings, which are difficult to describe yet impossible to deny? How will the federal government either help or hinder these things during the next four years?

If Mitt Romney’s line about cutting federal support for PBS during last night’s presidential debate left you worried, then you’re not alone. We decided to look at what might happen to arts funding if either Romney or Obama won the upcoming election. Although the federal government can financially support the arts through numerous organizations — such as the Smithsonian Institute, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in turn funds PBS and NPR, and so on — the biggie, in terms of handing out grants for artists and galleries across the country, is the National Endowment for the Arts.

Established in 1965, the NEA has had its share of budget ups and downs, and is often located near the top of a politician’s if-we-have-to-cut-something-let’s-cut-this list. Despite the relatively low amount of money the NEA has to work with ($146 million for 2012), several experts argue that receiving a grant from the agency is a sign of legitimacy, which often results in the recipient artist or organization attracting more money and leverage from private investors and local governments.

Anyway, first up: Mitt Romney.

Most know the candidate as a champion of austerity; someone willing to let things get a bit worse for the middle class before they get better. Romney is a leader who sees the cupboards empty, the gas bill way past due, and therefore concludes it’s time we get our priorities straight by selling the Xbox. Perhaps that’s a crude metaphor, but there you have it.

So it’s no surprise then that Romney’s plan is to reduce the allocation of funds to the NEA. What is surprising, perhaps, is the extent of these reductions. When asked by Fortune magazine what specific cuts he’ll make to government spending back in August, Romney replied:

“So first there are programs I would eliminate. Obamacare being one of them but also various subsidy programs — the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.”

And no, this isn’t a gaffe or one of those unfortunate, off-the-cuff remarks that Romney tends to make; this is premeditated policy. On his official campaign webpage addressing spending issues, way below the graphic of patriotic scissors accompanied by the words, “smaller, simpler, smarter government,” it clearly states that the former governor of Massachusetts plans to, “Reduce Subsidies For The National Endowments For The Arts And Humanities, The Corporation For Public Broadcasting, And The Legal Services Corporation — Savings: $600 Million.”

Again, it’s good to remember that while team Romney/Ryan has noble intentions to balance the budget, $600 million in savings is a very insignificant amount when compared to the reported $300 million per day it cost to fight the war in Afghanistan back in 2011. That’s like, two days’ worth, or 32 hours of awake time for the average 8-hour-per-night sleeper.

“I think it’s been four times now that Romney’s talked about wanting to cut the NEA,” said Narric Rome, Senior Director of Federal Affairs and Arts Education at the largest arts advocacy group in the nation, Americans for the Arts. “One report had it in half, and in other places it sounds like he might be calling for no federal support whatsoever.”

Interestingly, as noted by the Huffington Post, the result of these cuts would most significantly affect individuals located in Republican states, as many of them depend on organizations such as the NEA for support:

“Major arts providers in cities like New York or Los Angeles enjoy far higher levels of private donations than do institutions in most rural areas, where NEA grants can spell the difference between a program’s life and death. The NEA supports organizations in low-income regions, and helps states deal out money to those who need it most.”

The L Magazine has called Mitt’s move a “War on Art,” which is hyperbolic, yes, but somewhat accurate, too.

“Governor Romney, in his words so far, has indicated that he just doesn’t think that this is what the federal government ought to be doing,” said Rome. “It doesn’t even matter to what benefit it may be, he doesn’t even think their should be a role for supporting arts and culture from the federal level.”

Moving on: Barack Obama.

In February 2012, the reigning President of the United States and friend to the art world — particularly its highbrow circles — proposed a 5.5% increase for the NEA for the 2013 fiscal year, bringing 2012’s $146 million total up to $154 million.

“In President Obama’s case, we have several years of vocal and direct policy support for the arts,” said Rome.

Last Valentine’s Day, Rome wrote in a blog post that a major beneficiary of the new NEA funds would be the Our Town initiative, which aims to foster art in smaller communities with populations under 200,000.

While this is all fine and good for the Obama camp, it also should be known that, despite the boost in money, it still doesn’t make up for the President’s proposed decrease to the NEA the year prior — that being 12.6% for those keeping score. While it’s true that all these proposals get debated and modified by House and Senate appropriation committees, it’s also true that Obama isn’t afraid to slash art funding.

Indeed, according the NEA’s own records, funds actually received by the organization rose each year from 2001 until 2010. That’s primarily George W. Bush territory, folks! In 2011, however, NEA funding dropped to $154.7 million — down from $167.5 million the year prior — and then again to NEA’s current $146 million budget.

In 1992, the NEA reached its funding peak with a budget of $176 million. After the culture wars and controversial, partially NEA-backed Piss Christ took their toll, the grant-making organization has never fully recovered. According to the Los Angeles Times, “to return to that ['92] level in inflation-adjusted spending power, the NEA would need a budget hike to $282.2 million, or nearly double what Obama is proposing.”

It’s something to think about, at least, especially since organizations such as Americans for the Arts have found through research released last June that the arts are a boon to the economy, not just a fancy-looking parasite. Throughout history, whether it be the church or wealthy aristocrats, patrons of some sort have decided that the arts were worth funding, and thus invested accordingly. Perhaps future artists will look more and more toward crowdsourcing sites such as Kickstarter, which a piece in The New York Times states, “is now on track to distribute more money this year than the National Endowment for the Arts.” (Then again, Americans for the Arts claim Kickstarter is no NEA substitute.)

Either way, the conclusion: “Just based on Obama’s record and Governor Romney’s proposals, it seems pretty clear,” said Rome.

A ballot for Romney is a vote for either much less or no more NEA, while a ballot for Obama is a vote for the status quo.

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