In 1978, I was the recipient of a Photo Survey Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal Agency begun in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society Programs. For a young photographer like myself, the small grant was an opportunity to spend time making pictures in the entire county without the pressure of selling the images. I could shoot what interested me. Many of the photographs from that year made it into Sodom Laurel Album and others will be included in my next project, Little Worlds.
In 2000, I was awarded a Independent Research Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete photographs and writing on I-26, for what became my book, The New Road. NEH, another Federal Program, was begun at the same time as NEA, and both are part of the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act.
Between 1965 and 2008, NEA awarded over 180,000 grants, totaling $5 billion. These grants not only funded small projects like mine, but also larger projects in bigger places. NEH was much the same, sponsoring programs like Ken Burns' monumental endeavor, The Civil War, and The Treasures of Tutankhamen, an exhibit seen by over 1.5 million Americans. NEH also sponsors initiatives such as the Bridging Cultures Initiative, which explores ways in which the humanities promote understanding and mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives.
The new president and Congress have earmarked NEA and NEH for elimination and with them the thousands of music and dance programs, projects in underserved inner-city and rural communities, and countless performances that serve to teach us something about who we are as a people and society. Both agencies have budgets of approximately $150 million dollars, a mere pittance compared to the entire federal budget. By way of contrast, we taxpayers are presently paying about $1 million a day, $365 million a year, in rent and security so Melania Trump can stay in New York, rather than move into the White House like every other First Lady has done.
I wonder if and when we will get our priorities straight again and spend our money on projects aiding our children and communities rather than gifting it to the gilded few.