Investing in America’s cultural capital

The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities turn 50 this year. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Jane Chu of the NEA and William “Bro” Adams of the NEH about the contributions artists and humanists make to American society and the political pressure arts agencies feel to prove their worth.

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    Finally tonight: The government released new data today showing that arts and culture contribute more to the U.S. economy than previously thought.

    Jeffrey Brown recently sat down with the heads of the two government agencies tasked that promote the arts and humanities. They discussed the state of the arts in 2015.


    Jane Chu was born in Oklahoma to parents who had immigrated from China and spoke only Mandarin at home. When her father died when she was 9, it was music that helped her through.

    JANE CHU, National Endowment for the Arts: I didn't have enough words to articulate the grief of a loss of a parent, and certainly in my situation, having Mandarin at home and English in school. But music for some reason gave me a way to express myself, and I realized the power of it.


    Chu would become a leading arts administrator, heading the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. Seven months ago, she was confirmed as the 11th chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.

    William "Bro" Adams, born in Michigan, served as an Army lieutenant in Vietnam and later, his hair longer, got a Ph.D. in philosophy. He would eventually rise to become president of Colby College in Maine. Six months ago, Adams became chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

    WILLIAM "BRO" ADAMS, National Endowment for the Humanities: The issues and the challenges we face today, Jeff, are not fundamentally scientific and technical problems. The big challenges we face as a country revolve, again, around our history, our culture, our ideas and values.


    And where there is no vision, the people perish.


    The two agencies — and, for the record, the NEA helps support the "NewsHour"'s arts coverage — are turning 50 this year. They were signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson at a Rose Garden ceremony in September 1965, where he added this:


    We in America have not always been kind to the artists and the scholars, who are the creators and the keepers of our vision. Somehow, the scientists always seem to get the penthouse, while the arts and the humanities get the basement.



    Fifty years later, I talked with Chu and Adams about their biggest challenges today.


    There is sometimes a perception that the arts are off in a silo, that they are elitist, that they are only used in one way.

    But they really are attached to all we do, everything from the economy to human development, education, and our ability to simply live a quality of life. So we want to make sure that people understand how effective the arts can be for them.


    New data released by the NEA suggests that whether or not people see or understand the arts that way, they certainly are participating in them.

    In 2012, for example, 120 million people, more than half the country's adults, saw a show, attended a live performance, or viewed an art exhibition, together producing nearly $700 billion in economic activity, more than 4 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

    For its part, the NEH, which gives grants for research, education and programs in the humanities, is also trying to make a stronger case for its place in the national life. In that vein, it's launched the Common Good Initiative, designed to engage scholars and the public on a variety of issues, like the balance between liberty and security and how to better incorporate veterans back into civilian life.

    Is it a critique of the university to say that you need to connect them better, that scholars need to connect their work more to the general public?


    In a way, I think it can be, or it is.

    I do think there are ways in which academic humanities have become too inward-looking and too inwardly focused and preoccupied with very professional concerns. I understand where that's the case. And, sometimes, it's essential to certain kinds of disciplines.

    But I think we have lost touch with a more public-facing understanding of the humanities and practice of the humanities. I think humanists have a lot to say to the challenges that we're all facing.


    Like what? I mean, can I push on what? For example?


    For example, we all live with this extraordinary explosion of technology now. And we all sense that that technology is changing our lives in very considerable ways.

    But we're not good yet at thinking about what those ways are and understanding the impact that those technologies are having on our lives. One of the impacts that it's having on our lives is this very important, very difficult tension between liberty and security, which is being played out in the government, in the press, and in the country and the world generally every day.

    So there are a whole series of very public issues about which humanists have a great deal to say. And I want, we want at NEH to encourage them to talk about it.


    Of course, since the culture wars of the '80s and the Contract With America budget battles of the '90s, these two agencies have often found themselves under siege with threats to zero out their funding.

    Today, their annual budgets are $146 million each, a number that has held fairly steady for several years. But that's far below what it was in the '70s and '80s, when adjusted for inflation.


    I understand the pressure that is on the federal government, and I'm sympathetic to the need to be very, very careful with our resources and to justify those resources.

    But the amount of money that is spent on our agencies is relatively small, compared to the problems that we have financially. And I think to lose this final part of the investment the country's made in culture, in the cultural capital of the country would be a huge mistake. So it's making that argument in a compelling way that we have to do.


    Indeed, and when you — that's right.

    And, indeed, when we are talking about our leverage opportunities, that aligns perfectly with what Bro is talking about in terms of a little goes a long way. One plus one doesn't equal two. Certainly, when it comes our NEA grants, it equals seven.


    In terms of the amount of money that flows from that or grows from that.


    That grows from that, but that touches people as well all across the nation. That is a very cost-effective way to use an agency.


    Do you, though, feel the political pressure? I mean, does it in some ways constrain what you think you can do or the grants that you can give out?


    We are — I feel the same way that Bro has expressed. The people that we have met, members of Congress, do understand, especially when you tell them about the activities and the programs that are going on at the NEA, at the NEH.


    They see firsthand how it touches their areas. And they have been very receptive. So we have been very appreciative of being able to hold steady. Holding steady, but leveraging the power they do have to advance what are clearly passionately held ideals. All that will be tested further in the coming year, as a new Republican-led Congress takes hold.

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