Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Why Art Matters to America

By Thomas P. Campbell, Feb. 22, 2017, New York Times [original article contains links]

image from article

Four years ago, in a small warehouse in central China, a team of Chinese
archaeologists showed me objects that they had unearthed from a nearby ancient
tomb. Laid out on a folding table was an exquisite array of vases, ritual vessels and a
set of heart-­stoppingly beautiful silver gilt tigers and dragons that fit in the palm of
my hand, perhaps part of a long­-forgotten regal board game.

These finds were a keyhole through which we could glimpse the sophistication
of the Han dynasty rulers, who, 2,000 years ago, conquered and united the
enormous region that was to become modern-­day China.

This week, curators and conservators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art are
in Beijing working with Chinese colleagues to pack these and other objects for
transportation to New York, where they will be featured in an exhibition this spring.
Supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the exhibition, “Age of
Empires,” will teach our visitors about the origins of China, the superpower that is
now playing a major role in the balance of world power and trade.

Although the N.E.A. grant was a small part of the exhibition’s overall budget, it
was crucial in persuading others to add their support. Similar grants have helped the
Met mount exhibitions on the art of Jerusalem, India, Korea, Islam, Africa and

Sadly, it has become clear that the N.E.A. is, once again, under threat of being
abolished, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities. The purported
reason is cost savings.

All too often, art is seen as a “soft” subject, the first thing to be cut, whether by local
school boards or the federal government, when money is tight. But looked at purely
in dollars, it is a false saving. The N.E.A.’s budget is comparatively minuscule —
$148 million last year, or 0.004 percent of annual federal discretionary expenditures
— while the arts sector it supports employs millions of Americans and generates
billions each year in revenue and tax dollars.

The United States has no ministry of culture. In this vacuum, the N.E.A.,
founded in 1965, serves three critical functions: It promotes the arts; it distributes
and stimulates funding; and it administers a program that minimizes the costs of
insuring arts exhibitions through indemnity agreements backed by the government.
This last, perhaps least-­known responsibility, is crucial. This fall, the Met will host a
major exhibition on Michelangelo that will bring together masterpieces from across
the world. The insurance valuation is a whopping $2.4 billion — not even our
museum, the largest art museum in the nation, could come close to paying the
premium for such coverage without the federal indemnity the N.E.A. makes possible.

The grants, of course, receive the most attention, if not as much as they deserve.
Thousands are distributed in all 50 states, reaching every congressional district,
urban and rural, rich and poor. The N.E.A. leverages its tiny budget by giving out
grants that require recipients to raise matching funds from other donors. Grants
average $26,000 and require a one­-to-­one match for every federal dollar.

While this may sound small, it reflects the shoestring budgets on which many
local organizations depend. These grants sustain the arts in areas where people don’t
have access to major institutions like the Met. They support live theater for schools;
music, dance and jazz festivals; poetry and literary events; arts programs for war
veterans; and, of course, museum exhibitions.

Claiming that N.E.A. cuts are purely for cost savings conceals a deeper, more
partisan agenda. The last time the N.E.A. was this under fire was during the 1990s,
when funding was challenged for artists and institutions that refused to conform to a
narrow definition of propriety. Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, which
showed Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and its director were even charged
with obscenity.

I fear that this current call to abolish the N.E.A. is the beginning of a new
assault on artistic activity. Arts and cultural programming challenges, provokes and
entertains; it enhances our lives. Eliminating the N.E.A. would in essence eliminate
investment by the American government in the curiosity and intelligence of its
citizens. As the planet becomes at once smaller and more complex, the public needs
a vital arts scene, one that will inspire us to understand who we are and how we got
here — and one that will help us to see other countries, like China, not as enemies in
a mercenary trade war but as partners in a complicated world.

In six weeks, dignitaries from nations around the world will gather at the Met
for the opening of “Age of Empires.” And then, thousands of visitors will file into the
museum, and they, too, will experience the thrill I had four years ago on that muddy
flat in rural China. Even better, they will see these treasures in a historical and
artistic context, so that when they leave they will have that much more
understanding of China, from its ancient origins to its modern power.

Thanks, in part, to N.E.A. support.

Thomas P. Campbell is the director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of

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