New Mexico’s impoverished economy received a devastating blow last week when the extremist Republican establishment, fronted by the Trump administration, finally did what it has longed to do – begin the down and dirty process of eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities from the national budget, and stripping federal funding from PBS.
If the Trump budget goes through, the arts and humanities in America will take a debilitating, if not a fatal, blow. The government will renege on its traditional role as a patron of the arts and culture in America. Some one in ten New Mexicans, that’s about 80,000 persons in the “arts industry” here, many living on the economic margins, will see themselves slipping deeper into financial limbo or without a job altogether.
And worst of all, the creative heart and soul of our country, the imaginations of our children, the sublimity, liberation and relief the arts bring to our daily lives will be squeezed ever tighter into the narrow minded confines of bean counters and bottom line materialists who have come to resemble the Disney cartoon of the arrogant miser, one Scrooge McDuck, who revels in and swoons with joy at the gold doubloons filling up the empty swimming pool beneath his mansion.
The Republican establishment is saying to virtually every small town library, every arts education program, every music organization, every theatre group in every congressional district in the country – LET THEM EAT ACCOUNTING TAPE!
Conservatives have been trying to cripple the cultural life in our country since federal arts, library, and museum programs first appeared on the scene in the 1960s, and even before when they opposed the WPA in the 1930’s. But that dark impulse really came to a head in the 1980s during the Reagan administration and slopped over into the 1990s when Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, Al D’Mato, Pat Buchanan, and other infamous far-right politicians tried to use the “scandalous” and “anti-Christian” arts as a leverage to tilt their base over into ever greater lopsided extremism. But when David Stockman, Reagan’s budget czar, tried to eliminate arts funding, Republican celebrities like Charlton Heston and beer mogul Joseph Coors intervened to stop the initiative, pointing out, among other things, that the GOP really didn’t need to seem more troglodytic than it already did.
This is what comes of running government like a cut-throat business. Eliminate the competition. That’s the cardinal rule. And the end justifies any means, even financial annihilation. The arts have never been a natural constituency of the Republican Party. In fact the know-nothing, do-nothing party of the extreme right now finds the arts and culture community to be its natural “enemy.” So let kids of all economic status all across the country go without the brilliant free education they get on PBS. Let folks who need some calm and inspiration, in small towns and big, go without live music. Let the nation’s libraries and museums fall farther and farther into penury and the adults who pursue lifelong learning be deprived of fundamental public sources of knowledge. And as for poets, painters, violinists, actors and singers, the Republican Party says, “OH JUST GO OUT AND GET A REAL JOB.”
It may seem far-fetched but eliminating federal funding from New Mexico’s cultural life could have an economic and cultural impact analogous to that of the asteroid that stuck the Yucatan near Chicxulub some 66 million years ago, causing the extinction of 75 percent of all species. It’s that serious. New Mexico’s creative community and its audiences won’t go totally extinct, but the damage will be immense and will reverberate all across New Mexico for decades, undermining our sense of well-being and self-confidence, our cultural expansiveness, and that part of our economy that brings spirited imagination, creative wonder, and hopeful enthusiasm to financially crippled rural and urban communities.
If you look just at the elimination of NEA funding, which is used to leverage other money from private donors as well as supporting arts organizations that fund and manage a myriad programs and projects that we all enjoy, you’ll see that everything from tourism to the state’s image as a highly civilized environment luring top brass from major companies to settle here, will be damaged almost beyond repair.
As UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) pointed out three years ago, the arts and culture “industries” in New Mexico generate close to $5.6 billon that stimulates in some way the livelihood of everyone, from actors, musicians, print makers and poets to café and restaurant workers, hotel employees, and every aspect of the convention trade.
Last year, New Mexico received $902,900 from the NEA. More than $700,000 of that goes to the state agency New Mexico Arts, which uses federal money to help non-profit arts organizations leverage other sources of revenue. It also funded, directly, Wise Fool NM and its programs promoting youth circus arts, the Keshet Dance Company, Tricklock Theatre Company, UNM’s Main campus Chaco Heritage project, NMSU’s Geomagic mineral and art exhibition, the Tarnoff Art Center in Rowe, the Pecos National Historic Park Cultural Arts Program, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, and SITE Santa Fe for its exhibition on New Perspectives on the Art of the Americas.
At one time or another, the NEA has funded in New Mexico a Poetry in the Schools Program, The Outpost Performance Space and its jazz performances, helped create an environment in which the High Road Artisans Rural Art Project in Chimayo, Cordova, Truches, Ojo Sarco, Las Trampas, Penasco, Picuris Pueblo could flourish in the 1990s. It’s put money into Music at Angel Fire, Working Classroom Inc. for its multicultural street conservancy project, and the Santa Fe Art Institute.
These are just few of hundreds of projects the NEA has supported over the years. If added in to this mix are the Chautauqua Programs of the National Endowment of the Humanities, its lecture series, radio programs and historical panels and discussions that go into virtually every community in the state, and the loss of those federal dollars in the sustaining of a humane and democratic culture is truly heartbreaking.
And all these good works have been accomplished with what amounts to, in the vast scheme of the federal budget, not even a tiny drop in the bucket, but rather a short burst of financial mist. It seems likely to me that the people of New Mexico, and its many thousands of culture and art workers, and their loyal audiences, will rally to create a new financial structure for the arts in our state. How that will work out, or what form it will take, remains for the future to tell us. But to start something new and sustainable that isn’t at the whim of Washington politics requires really one kind of motivation – love of the human imagination driven by the engine of hope.
In 1993, Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer who became the first president of the Czech Republic, reminded us of just how deep and powerful hope can be. He wrote, “The kind of hope I often think about (especially in hopeless situations…) is, I believe, a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t… Hope is not a prognostication – it’s an orientation of the spirit. Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can’t delegate that to anyone else…. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now….”
If there was ever a time for us find the strength that hope brings to “try new things” to keep the creative and cultural life of New Mexico flourishing, it is now.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it