Montana Voices: Arts, humanities at risk in Trump budget

By David Crisp/Last Best News

In all of the post-election chaos, it’s easy to overlook the minor casualties. Some of them may be in Montana.

The Trump administration, eager to ramp up spending on the military, border control and infrastructure, all while cutting taxes and shoring up Social Security and health care, is desperate to find spending cuts.

David Crisp

Among the proposals the administration is considering is eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That wouldn’t make much of a dent in the deficit—the three programs account for about a tenth of 1 percent of federal spending—but the cuts would please conservatives who have argued for years that the federal government has no business funding the arts.

I have a battered dog in this fight. Growing up in rural Texas, I relied on public television to learn about the plays of Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and Rostand. Public radio, which gets about 25 percent of its money through the CPB, introduced me to classical and jazz music and still provides an oasis of carefully reported news and commentary in a desert of pop and country hits, sports rants and on-air bloviating from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Indeed, most of what I have learned about the world beyond sitcoms and comic book movies has involved government support in some fashion, starting with biweekly visits to the public library. The arts may be a playground for the elites, but the government has given us proletariats a peek at that world, too.

Arguments over the arts have been kicked around practically since the country was founded. In a letter in 1796, George Washington wrote, “To promote literature in this rising empire, and to encourage the arts, have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart.”

In 1780, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, the Massachusetts Legislature approved a charter for the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences. John Adams wrote the motto: “To cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honour, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

 In the very first State of the Union address, just one year after the Constitution went into effect, President Washington told members of Congress that nothing “can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”Among the possibilities Washington suggested was creating a national university. Adams, the second U.S. president, wrote to his wife, Abigail, “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy … in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture.”

In a letter to his 9-year-old son, John Quincy Adams, Adams said that a “Taste for Literature and a Turn for Business, united in the same Person, never fails to make a great Man. A Taste for Literature, includes the Love of Science and the fine Arts.”

The young Adams took the lesson to heart. In 1825, when he was president, he also proposed a national university. The idea went nowhere.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “you see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. but it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as it’s object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world & procure them it’s praise.”

But federal support for the arts was intermittent—the Smithsonian here, the Works Progress Administration there—until 1965, when Congress by voice vote passed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act. The legislation contained these words: “An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.”

Writer Garry Wills has made a novel defense of arts funding, arguing that it is authorized under the constitutional provision that allows Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Sounds like a stretch, but if the Second Amendment doesn’t restrict gun ownership to militias, then one could argue that copyright and patent laws don’t restrict Congress’ authority to promote the arts.

At any rate, the NEA and the NEH now get some $146 million each per year, less than a buck a year per citizen. By contrast, Germany spends about 40 times as much per capita on the arts. The Smithsonian gets more federal dollars all by itself than the NEA, NEH and public broadcasting combined.

In addition, the Montana Legislature spends 49 cents per capita for arts funding, more than California and Texas but far below Minnesota ($7.04) and New York ($2.29). Montana ranks dead last among the western states—yes, even including Wyoming—in total dollars for the arts.

Still, Montanans get considerable bang for the buck. Recent grants here have included nearly $100,000 to Little Big Horn College to collect oral histories of the Crow people, $10,000 to the Alberta Bair Theater to support New Performing Arts in the Old West, $10,000 to the Billings Symphony to bring in trumpeter Rex Richardson and $25,000 to the Yellowstone Art Museum to support an exhibition by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.

The NEA awarded $3.1 million in grants to Montana from 2013-2015, with matching funds totaling $13.3 million. Ken Egan, a former professor at Rocky Mountain College who now heads Humanities Montana in Missoula, said in an email that 77 percent of its funding came through NEH last year.

Humanities Montana will coordinate with the Montana Arts Council (which receives NEA funding), Montana Public Television, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio to make its case for continued funding, Egan said. All three members of Montana’s congressional delegation have responded positively to requests for support, he said.

“We serve virtually every county in Montana, and we do so efficiently and well,” Egan said. “We remain confident NEH and NEA will be refunded because of strong support in Congress and among the many citizens who benefit from our programs and grants.”

Maybe he’s just whistling in the dark. But that’s one thing you learn from long exposure to the best that humans have created and thought: hope.

David Crisp is a longtime Montana journalist and Billings resident, writing for