PROVIDENCE — The head of the National Endowment for the Humanities is meeting with cultural groups, encouraging them to apply for federal grants even as President Donald Trump’s administration seeks to eliminate the 52-year-old agency.
Acting Chairman Jon Parrish Peede told cultural leaders in Rhode Island on Friday that the NEH is still awarding grants and “arts and humanities matter, period.”
Peede says the NEH funds more than 40 types of projects. Despite a decline in applications in some categories, the number still outstrips available funding.
One of the worst things that could happen as the budget is being resolved is for organizations to stop applying, Peede added. The Republican president proposed eliminating arts-related agencies, including the NEH, in his 2018 budget.
“No one in the administration is speaking, in my presence, ever in a derogatory manner about the arts and humanities,” Peede said. “So these are not culture wars.”
Peede said he’s not aware of any administration official recommending defunding the NEH or the National Endowment for the Arts because of the work that they do, rather it’s not being defined as a domestic spending priority.
The House of Representatives’ appropriations bill proposed funding the NEH at $145 million, an approximate 3 percent cut. The Senate hasn’t released its figure.
“Regardless of our budget, it’s important for me to go around the country talking about the importance of the arts and humanities,” Peede said. “People want to live meaningful lives. They want to lead lives of purpose and they want to live in communities where their experiences, their culture, is valued. And the NEH is a vital part of that.”
While some Rhode Island cultural leaders are worried, they remain hopeful.
Peede visited the Providence Athenaeum, a cultural institution that recently received a NEH grant to plan for conservation work.
“The arts and humanities touch people in all 50 states, all congressional districts, red and blue,” said Matt Burriesci, executive director at the Athenaeum. “The conversation is ridiculous. It’s a preposterously small percentage of the budget and the money spent has a multiplier effect, so it’s the most efficient use of federal dollars.”
Private philanthropy cannot take the place of the NEH, said Elizabeth Francis, executive director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.
“It’s a question of values,” she said. “I think there’s a widespread sense that the arts, history, our heritage, are important things, but what does it take to sustain them and enable them to flourish? One of the arguments is that it’s not something the federal government should be supporting, but I would argue there’s a common good and it’s something we all need to care about.”
NEH says it has awarded more than 64,000 grants since 1965, totaling $5.5 billion, for humanities research, preservation, digital development, education, endowment-building, films, exhibitions and public programming.