April 2014
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Where Does the NEA Spend Their Money?

After reading David’s series on funding increases for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), I wanted to find out where the NEA spends its money. I am motivated by the following concern:

How much of the NEA budget does the NEA “piss away” money on things like “Piss Christ?” I suspect Piss Christ and its ilk are funded somewhere in the low thousands, like around 15,000 dollars. The cumulative dollar value attached by the government to things like Piss Christ is probably around 100,000 dollars over the past 10 years. My thesis is that the vast majority of NEA funding probably goes to worthwhile projects. If my thesis is correct, funding for Piss Christ is off-set by less shock-value laden artistic endeavors. These less shock-value endeavors are probably banal in nature, but do some good for communities around the U.S., and can be reasonably justified. In short, why condemn the entire NEA for funding “Piss Christ” to the point of demanding the NEA close its doors when the vast majority of payments go to more worthwhile endeavors? Please note that this is not David’s position (he’s simply my muse).

Somehow, conservatives are the ones to call for the end to the NEA:

“Conservatives have long criticized the National Endowment for the Arts for funding questionable art projects – some of them sexually explicit or even described as blasphemous.

As CNSNews.com reported in 2002, the NEA has generated controversy for years, thanks in large part to taxpayer-funded works such as “Piss Christ,” the photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine that received NEA funding in the mid-1990s and was subsequently attacked by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and then-Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.).

Conservatives have crusaded against the use of tax dollars for such projects but haven’t been able to muster enough votes in Congress to kill NEA funding.”

To understand the budget (as I am trying to do, and boy it’s not easy), please refer to the NEA Annual Performance Report for Fiscal Year 2002. You can find it on the NEA’s website. I could not find a direct link to “budget” or Annual Performance Report off the main webpage. Suspicious? Nah. Many government websites don’t have easily identifiable links to the budget. Trying to find a University’s budget statement is hard, let alone one for the country.

The NEA allocates money to seven main areas: Access, creativity, arts learning, heritage/preservation, organizational capacity, community arts development, and partnerships. Let’s look at the most likely contributors to Piss Christ: Access and Creativity. Note that the budget for FY2002 was 121 million dollars.

Access (broaden public access to the excellence and diversity of the arts). This includes concerts/readings/performances, schools and other residencies, and exhibitions: 292 total awards, from which 10,000 performances, exhibitions, etc. have been funded. The total cost: about 14 million dollars.

Creativity (foster opportunities for the creation and presentation of artistically excellent work). This includes artworks created, performances, exhibitions, and fellowships to writers: 845 awards, from which 27,000 performances, exhibitions etc. have been funded. The total cost: about 20 million dollars.

The rest, about 87 million dollars, goes to arts learning in schools, conservation/restoration of art, strengthening organizational and fincancial capabilities of arts programs, community arts programs, and partnerships with state and regional arts programs.

It doesn’t seem that 34 million dollars (access and creativity combined) can ALL go to Piss Christs. More than likely, the majority goes to non shock-value arts like dance performances, retrospectives on artistis, funding for museums, etc. The angry little Piss Christ maker, I’m sure, rarely gets funded. For an example list of who, exactly, gets funding, see the NEA website at this address:


2 comments to Where Does the NEA Spend Their Money?

  • Not for nothing, but that’s great research, Josh; my own posts look rather shabby in comparison.

    I must disagree with you on a few points. What many of us would consider “banal” and “reasonably justified” may indeed be offensive to others, or at least laden with shock value. Not to get into a po-mo argument about what words mean (let alone the definition of “is”), but we ARE talking about two things that are extremely volatile: art and money. First, many of my fellow conservatives are bothered by paintings and statuary that depict naked folks, and to them, even such a thing as the Venus de Milo would be better categorized as “porn” instead of “art.” This is exacerbated by the money factor: if hypothetical Senator Tankerbell (R-SC) says to his constituency that their tax dollars are going to fund such titillating (tee hee, “tit”) and obscene displays, the good people of SC should have the right to judge for themselves what they pay for and what doesn’t meet their community standards.

    By your own admission, you don’t know exactly how much money was spent to fund Piss Christ and, to quote a colleague of mine, “some naked faggot running around in the park with chocolate on his balls.” Thanks to your research, we do have the breakdown, but we don’t have the breakdown of the breakdown (so to speak). Of course, if a program wastes a little bit of money, it doesn’t mean that the whole program’s to be thrown out. But abuse is abuse, and without microscopic oversight, programs like this contain vast potential for abuse. In a budget of a trillion dollars, with whole pig farms worth of pork stuffed inside, I submit to you that even $15,000 is way, WAY too much to spend on Piss Christ.

    Piss Christ could indeed have been funded under the headings of either Creativity or Access. However, what kinds of art classes is the potential Piss Christer taking on my dime (arts learning in schools)? Was he part of a group of government-funded Catholicism-haters (community arts programs)? The point is, the potential for abuse here, combined with, as mentioned before, community standards, makes the NEA a very shaky organization.

    I love art museums, the theater, etc. I’d rather that the upkeep of such things be placed under the purview of the state in which I live instead of Congress, IF they have to be publicly funded. Once again, I’m not sure that public funding is the best way to go here.

  • Joshua

    Thank you for the kind words. My analysis has many flaws, as you point out. My data is far from ideal. I guess I’m trying to say that the NEA doesn’t just fund Piss Christs. They fund all sorts of interesting projects that, one could argue, benefit communities. Art benefits communities insomuch as art benefits anyone’s soul, spirit, feel goodedness… intangible benefits, I suppose. Considering the the budget is in the trillions, I argue that spending 121 million on artistic endeavors is a small price to pay for such intangible benefits. I doubt the people who approve funds know what kind of art will come out of it. They just know it will produce some intangible benefits to folks who like art, and are providing a service. The government probably doesn’t judge what is artistic… more than likely, they judge the best proposal, without knowledge of what the final project will look like. It doesn’t seem like such a monstrous program eating into other endeavors. I guess we could slash 121 million from the military budget and the military wouldn’t feel a thing (military spending is so pork barrelled I’m sure there aren’t any negative consequences for slashing the military even that much). I don’t think the education budget or the military budget is negatively affected by putting money into the arts. There are economies of scale, you see.

    I just don’t see why folks are upset that the government wants to give money to its artists. We don’t give that much (in comparison to other programs… economies of scale, you see), and what little we give is generally not towards Piss Christs.