Trump's cuts to the arts are threatening this Jesuit priest's documentary on Flannery O'Connor

As most of us know by now the Trump administration’s proposed budget for 2018 includes plans to abolish the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Though the N.E.H. and the N.E.A. combined budget of $148 million is a mere .003 per cent of the entire federal budget, the rationale to defund the endowment is that tax dollars would be better spent in building up the defense budget, which President Donald J. Trump wants to increase by $54 billion.

This is how the N.E.H. describes its mission: “Because democracy demands wisdom, the N.E.H. serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans. The endowment accomplishes this mission by awarding grants for top-rated proposals examined by panels of independent, external reviewers.” Its mission is not to fund big projects but to provide seed money that will help get the ball rolling or help to finish things up. It does a great deal with very little.

I can personally attest to the importance of the endowments. My colleague, Elizabeth Coffman, and I are recent recipients of a $150,000 grant from the N.E.H. This past summer, we won the award to finish our full-length feature documentary, “Flannery O’Connor: Acts of Redemption.”

With over 42 hours of film, some of it from interviews with O’Connor’s friends and relatives, “Acts of Redemption” tells the story of this great southern, Catholic writer and her contribution to American arts and letters. We show how O’Connor’s life and her artistry stand as a singular achievement of 20th-century American literature. She is the most anthologized American short story writer in the nation, with her signature story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” taught in schools around the country. Even still, O’Connor’s legacy in American literature remains grossly understated—which is exactly why this project is a perfect example of why these endowments are so important to our nation’s past and future.

The documentary is now in postproduction, a costly final stage that brings together sound editing, musical scoring, motion graphics, voice-over and clearance costs. We are in discussion with PBS’s “American Masters” series for a national broadcast in the coming year. This means the film must have the highest broadcast production values. It also means that even as we practice prudence with the funds that donors have been generous in giving, the final push can be costly.

How unfortunate that the arts are caught in the cross-hairs of a ruptured and increasingly misguided political system.

Indeed, winning the N.E.H. grant opened doors for us in our pursuit of further funds. It helped us reach foundations and patrons interested in supporting the film specifically because they know the rigorous review process that comes with winning the federal grant. In effect, the N.E.H. magnifies its impact for funding the arts and the humanities because many foundations offer matching grants based on the funding award. The small annual budget of the N.E.H. actually plays a larger role in the cultural economy of federal stimulus, securing support from a complex network of organizations and donors. As the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently stated on its website, “We could not begin to do this without the abiding partnership, inspiration, and example of the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts.” The N.E.H. and N.E.A. keep many cultural projects running all year round across the country, in schools and universities, in art centers and research units, in rural America and in our urban centers.

And so, it was with great anxiety that my colleague and I found out that only one-third of the $150,000 grant ($50,000) was going to be distributed to us in the fall of 2016, money coming from the previous federal budget under the Obama administration. The other $100,000 of our grant was contingent upon the new 2017 budget. We have been told not to expect the funding to come through until the budget is passed, and I am back out on the fundraising trail yet again.

No matter the political affiliation, all can agree that we are living in a convulsive era. How unfortunate that the arts are caught in the cross-hairs of a ruptured and increasingly misguided political system.

Sadly, the president’s proposed budget uses the arts and humanities as an ideological wedge to unschool America about its great democratic heritage

President Trump’s budget to defund the arts and humanities is shortsighted, to say the least. The N.E.H. and N.E.A fund numerous projects that truly make America great. The endowments support vitally important intellectual and artistic work that creates a space to ask questions about what greatness is all about in the first place. Sadly, the president’s proposed budget uses the arts and humanities as an ideological wedge to unschool America about its great democratic heritage. Winston Churchill knew this to be true for the British nation as well: “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them…. Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that no funding would come through for the project. The NEH may still provide a percentage of originally promised funding depending on the budget that is passed this year.

Jerry Capie
3 months 3 weeks ago

Grant funding for the Arts via NEA and NEH by the Federal Government cannot be considered as an automatic given. A better subject line should have included former president Obama and present president Trump as not keeping this endowment fully funded because of disastrous funding shortfalls due to poor governing by "All" our politicians. To target President Trump funding the military is true, but I am sure other endowments and policies were also impacted by this president "and past presidents as well."

Vince Killoran
3 months 3 weeks ago

This is a shame. Add in public radio and television. The civic realm--the commons--fades in the world of neoliberalism (of the centrist Democratic and right wing Republican kinds).

Will Niermeyer
3 months 2 weeks ago

I do not believe government should be contributing our tax money to the arts. Have bake sales and raise your own money.

John Walton
3 months 2 weeks ago

Nowadays you need a $100 municipal permit to sell lemonade or cookies on the street corner. You have to make the cookies in a nut-free facility, or disclose in appropriate packaging that the cookies contains egg or wheat gluten.

This is what happens when government becomes intrusive in citizen's lives. Intrusive also as a provider of funds, to selectively approved charities.

Frank Bergen
3 months 2 weeks ago

If I were a rich man I'd gladly supply the funding for the O'Connor documentary. And I suspect any of the members of the extended family of our president could do so without feeling any financial pain. But in reality our nation has long relied on its government as well as on its philanthropists to fund worthwhile public projects from libraries to museums to live broadcasts of jazz and symphonies and opera. During and after WW2 our military mounted a campaign to locate, save and restore to their owners art works confiscated by the Nazis. And even during the Great Depression of the 1930s we had a federal government that recognized the practical as well as aesthetic value of the arts and humanities. America will not be made greater through the elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Alas, maybe I can organize a neighborhood car wash, or a lemonade stand.

Tom Fields
3 months 2 weeks ago

Tax dollars should NOT fund the arts. Remember, "Piss Christ" and other horror shows. Funding can come from rich donors or sponsoring organizations or Church/Jesuit coffers. World threats demand an increased Defense budget after Obama's neglect.

Richard Booth
3 months 2 weeks ago

A society without the arts is a collective of cretins. But, I reiterate that the majority of voting Catholics submitted their ballots in Trump's favor. I guess they got what they voted for.

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