What Abolishing the NEA Will Mean for Women Artists
"It’s hideous. We would be devastated."
In late September 2011, almost three years after receiving a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the poet Nickole Brown was waiting on her first paycheck from the University of Arkansas in Little Rock when her water was shut off. She had $38 left from the NEA grant in her bank account, not enough to pay the bill. “You wouldn’t think that $25,000 is a ton of money, but I stretched it for three years,” she tells me a few days after President Donald Trump proposed to close the NEA in his first budget.
Brown is just one of the NEA-funded women artists and women’s arts organization I spoke with this past week. All of them decried Trump’s proposal to shut down the NEA, an organization which has provided them crucial support. “It’s hideous. We would be devastated,” Brown says when I ask her what her reaction would be if Congress does indeed go through with Trump’s recommendation. “I wouldn’t exist as I am without that help. I would be a housewife somewhere with a tassel of kids, which is okay. But I don’t think I would’ve been very happy.”
Government support for Brown’s art began much earlier than her 2009 NEA grant. When she was 15 years old, she attended the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. “From then on [writing] is all I wanted to do,” she says of the two-week program. “I don’t come from a place where there was a lot of financial support,” Brown, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and Deerfield Beach, Florida, tells me. “I was raised on the literary equivalent of grease and plastic. The only books in the house were the Bible and Cosmo. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school.”
And Brown has gone on to do much more—study at Oxford as an English Speaking Union Scholar, earn an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, author two books called Sister and Fanny Says, the latter of which she focused on during her NEA fellowship year. In the years since the Governor’s School, Brown has also received grants from the state’s Kentucky Arts Council and nonprofits such as the Kentucky Foundation for Women.
“The NEA changed my life and probably saved my life. I can’t say how grateful I’ve been for that chance,” Brown says.
No matter their medium—whether it be print-making or filmmaking—the women artists and arts organizations I spoke to said that their NEA grants were key not only to their budgets, but also to helping level the playing field in what is still a male-dominated art world.
For evidence of the art world’s masculinist tendencies, Chris Cowden, executive director of the Austin-based and NEA-funded Women & Their Work, points to the feminist artist collective Pussy Galore’s 2015 report card on NYC-based galleries. In that year, women artists were in the minority at most galleries; Cowden says these results were not much better than the Guerrilla Girls’ report cards of galleries in the 1980s. “As far as the NEA affecting women artists, I’ve been on an NEA panel three times, and I will say that they really look at excellence but they also look at underserved groups. Excellence in underserved groups is a strong point,” she tells me.
According to my data analysis of the NEA’s publicly available grant records, arts organizations that aim to benefit women have received over $12 million since 1998. For the 2017 fiscal year, over 30 organizations received $1,022,500 for projects that empowered women in some way. Take, for example, the Cambridge, MA-based American Repertory Theatre, which will use the grant money to stage a performance based on the lives of trans women. Another grant went to Sarabande Books—the small Kentucky press where Brown worked prior to her NEA grant. Sarabande will use the funding to bring authors to shelters for women.
“The NEA money is direct funding for women to work in the studio,” says Ann Kalmbach, founder and executive director of the Women’s Studio Workshop in New York state. “It is always about bringing women artists to work in the studio.” Kalmbach’s organization has received grants for many years, including 2017.
The direct funding for women-centric arts organization, which for 2017 averaged about $30,000 per grant, provides support that’s integral to helping these organizations’ missions. “The NEA fills in so many holes in so many budgets,” says Cowden. “Some organizations would be brought to their knees if the NEA didn’t exist anymore. That one grant wouldn’t be what brought you down completely, but losing it would be a blow. It would be a big kick in the teeth.”
But even more so, the NEA provides a certain stamp of legitimacy that helps organizations get funding from other state, city, and private organizations. “Every dollar is magnified,” says Women Make Movies executive director Debra Zimmerman, who tells me that the nonprofit was able double the financial support it received from the NEA last year with contributions from other local government organizations and individual donors. “If you look at the caliber of the organizations that are funded by the NEA, they’re really an amazing groups of institutions,” she says. “It’s very well respected.”
The conservative argument against the NEA is twofold. For social conservatives, like the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the NEA is said to fund obscene, blasphemous work, like Robert Mapplethorpe’s infamous “The Perfect Moment” exhibition. Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of gay S&M culture, when they were shown at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center in 1990, were so controversial that the museum that exhibited the images was taken to court for obscenity—the first time a museum was ever tried on criminal charges in the US.
But since the museum’s right to show the images was upheld by the jury, conservatives have, in more recent years, taken on an economic argument against the NEA, which along with its sister organization the National Endowment for the Humanities, receives about $300 million a year. (For comparison, Trump’s budget proposal includes a $54 billion increase in military spending, and it’s projected that shutting down the NEA and NEH will cost nearly a third of its current operating budget). Right-wing commentator Tucker Carlson calls government organizations like the NEA “welfare for rich, liberal elites.” Speaking more broadly of Trump’s proposals, the administration’s budget chief Mick Mulvaney told reporters last week that “We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs.”
Embedded in the arguments of the women’s arts organizations I spoke to was the firm belief in the need for art, and particularly the need for a diverse art that gives voice to marginalized communities. “Art is really powerful for people that don’t really have power,” says Kebo Drew, the managing director of the San Francisco-based Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, which received NEA funding most recently for fiscal year 2015.
This experience is magnified on the individual level. For Nickole Brown, the NEA and other government grants have allowed her to record not only her own experience but also that of her grandmother’s, a woman who lacked a formal education and never really learned to read and write. “When I back up and look at my career and think that what has happened to me and the force of everything that I have written about that was funded by these programs, I’ve given voice to an experience that would have otherwise disappeared,” she tells me. “My ragtag existence in Kentucky would’ve absolutely disappeared.”
But in times like these, when the future of the arts and the future of her country as a whole are uncertain, Brown falls back on the last words her grandmother spoke to her: “Be mean and fight for it. That’s the only way it will ever come to you. Remember what Grandma tells you: People will take only what you let them, and you hold that head back and walk straight. You understand? Be mean, fight for it. Hold that head back, walk straight. You’ll remember what I tell you? You’ll remember, won’t you?”