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April 27th, 2017 under West Texas Talk » West Texas Talk Highlight
(CHINATI FOUNDATION photo) Chinati staff members Adele Powers and Steven Granado work with Marfa ISD kindergarteners.

Chinati staff members Adele Powers and Steven Granado work with Marfa ISD kindergarteners.

A case for cultural agency funding


Steve Zeitlin is a distinguished American folklorist, a former Smithsonian colleague of mine who now directs a New York organization called City Lore, which is devoted to preserving the spoken culture of New York City. He is a man fascinated by words and the way people use them, and he has written a bunch of books on that subject. So it is no surprise that, when commenting recently on our president’s proposal to end all federal funding for the arts and humanities, he began by commenting on Trump’s use of language. His remarks, transmitted in his blog, “The Poetry of Everyday Life,” are so pithy and so relevant to life here in Marfa that I am going to quote extensively from them.

Zeitlin begins by pointing out that while many presidents have provided us with enduring metaphors, such as Lincoln’s “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and Theodore Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Trump’s speeches are devoid of metaphors or proverbial phrases. “Metaphors connect ideas and people through language,” Zeitlin writes, “but instead of calling on language and poetry to connect . . . Trump’s linguistic creativity has been limited to insults and name calling.”

Zeitlin suggests that “we can come up with our own colorful metaphorical language to describe Trump in the Oval office. We know that ‘there’s a bull in the china shop’ and that ‘the fox is in the henhouse now.’ Trump’s words and actions bring to mind a Hasidic proverb: ‘Not only is what he says not true, but the opposite of what he says isn’t true either’.”

Zeitlin concludes that Donald Trump’s linguistic poverty reveals him as “an artless president, a president with little or no feeling for poetry, language, or art,” and “therefore it should come as no surprise that Trump would propose the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, cutting America’s most literate institutions off at the knees.”

Just to quickly review, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was created by Congress in 1965 to support projects of artistic merit with grants of Federal funds. Since 1965 it has made about 150,000 grants. Its annual budget has never exceeded $180 million, or about the price of a postage stamp for every American. The 2016 budget was $148 million. For comparison, the 2016 budget of the Department of Defense was $521.7 billion. The National Endowment for the Humanities was also created in 1965 to support scholarly research, publications, and exhibitions in the humanities. Its budgets have been equally parsimonious; the 2016 budget was the same as the NEA’s, $148 million. Both agencies put most of their funds into grants to state arts and humanities agencies and to individual applicants.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting also goes back to the 1960s, having been established by Congress in 1967 as a non-profit corporation to support non-commercial radio and television broadcasting. The CPB budget for 2016 was $445 million, 70% of which was distributed to 1,400 locally owned public radio and television stations, including Marfa Public Radio. The remainder is used largely for producing CPB’s own programs, such as “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered”, which are distributed through National Public Radio and heard on those local stations.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services was originally established in 1976 to provide federal funding to the nation’s museums; libraries were added to its portfolio in 1996. Its total budget for 2016 was $230 million, of which $214 million was expended in grants to libraries and museums.

Zeitlin points out that eliminating these cultural agencies “would be akin to the destruction of ancient monuments in that it would be difficult if not impossible to ever bring them back. Abolishing them eradicates not only a vast body of knowledge but also the career-long efforts of smart, caring civil servants who have made the most of the relatively small resources allowed them in honing processes to support the nation’s arts, heritage, history, and culture.”

Zeitlin goes on to examine the efforts of the cultural agencies to bring the arts and humanities to rural America, to the very places that Trump argues are depressed and desperately need change. “The arts are part of the solution,” Zeitlin says, “not the problem.” He cites a homemade sign that went up after 9/11: “The only cure for life is art.”

Marfa is a textbook example of a rural community rescued by art. When I was in college in Fort Worth in the 1950s Marfa was the end of the world. If you wanted to see art you went to New York. Now New York comes to Marfa to see art. The role played by Federal cultural agencies in this transformation has been considerable, and it would behoove all of us to think about what might happen in Marfa if Congress supports the president’s proposal to eliminate funding for cultural agencies.

For example, the Chinati Foundation’s entire education program, which has introduced thousands of Marfa and Permian Basin schoolchildren to the arts through special tours and summer programs, was created with a $200,000 grant from the IMLS. The initial planning for the Irwin installation was carried out with one of several grants Chinati has received from the NEA. Over the past two years Ballroom Marfa has received $28,000 in NEA funds through the Texas Commission for the Arts, and has a grant request pending for $60,000 to help support a special exhibition called “Hyperobjects”. Many programs at the Marfa Public Library, including interlibrary loans, the summer reading program, and the computerized databases made available to library patrons through TexShare, are made possible by IMLS grants to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Marfa Public Radio receives about a third of its annual budget, $240,000 this year, as a direct grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Jenny Moore, director of the Chinati Foundation, pointed out to me that grants from public agencies to arts organization serve as an endorsement that stimulates private giving, but that if we eliminate those agencies we are shirking “our responsibility as a collective society to support one of our most singular human traits – our ability to express ourselves artistically and creatively.”

Steve Zeitlin makes the same point by quoting Winston Churchill, who, when asked during World War II why he did not cut government funding for the arts to bolster the war budget, said, “If we cut the arts, then what are we fighting for?”


Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at

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