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Obama budget: Good for D.C. museums, not for NEA and arts grants

President Obama’s proposed federal budget for the coming 2014-15 fiscal year would lift spending 3.5% overall for the six main federal arts and culture agencies but provide no increase for the three grant-making bodies that disburse money to nonprofit groups outside Washington, D.C.

Obama’s core arts and culture spending proposals total $1.53 billion, and the increase is far less than the 10% hike he had advocated a year ago. Spending for 2013-14 is $1.479 billion. If inflation is taken into account, the president's new plan would continue to leave federal arts spending below where it stood before the budget sequestration cuts that went into effect last March but were partly undone when a new federal budget year began last October.

The current 2013-14 federal budget lifted arts spending by about $63 million from the 2012-2013 budget of $1.416 billion. That year, sequestration exacted a $95-million reduction in federal arts spending from 2011-2012, when spending was $1.511 billion.

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If Congress OKs the president’s new plan, federal arts and culture spending would rise more than $51 million starting Oct. 1. The total federal arts allocation would be somewhat less than the Air Force would expect to pay for two new long-range bombers, which carry an estimated price tag of $810 million each.

Obama’s new plan would leave annual funding unchanged for two grant-making agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, each at $146 million; the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the third grant-making agency, would take a $412,000 cut to $226.5 million.

In his previous budget proposal, Obama had urged an increase of about 12% for the NEA and NEH, to $154.5 million, but Congress limited the hike to 5.8%. His new proposal doesn't try to make up that gap. The two grant-making agencies are perennial targets for Republicans who want to reduce federal spending; Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential platform called for slicing their allocations by half, and House Republicans have continued to press for comparable cuts.

Americans for the Arts, a leading advocacy group for the nonprofit arts sector that benefits from NEA and NEH grants, issued a statement Tuesday criticizing Obama's proposal for the NEA as "unfortunately insufficient," adding that it creates "an inconsistency and a confusing message for the creative economy in America." The group said it would push for a $155 million NEA budget during its annual Arts Advocacy Day lobbying effort on Capitol Hill on March 25.

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The president also aims to keep the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ allocation unchanged at $22 million, reserving his entire proposed arts increase for museums -- the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution, both of which offer free admission and serve as tourist magnets.

The Smithsonian, always the king of the federal cultural spending mountain, would see its funding rise to $850.9 million from $805 million, a 5.7% increase. The National Gallery’s funding would increase 5.3% to $140 million. Those outlays would include operating support and funds for renovations and new construction.

The biggest building project underway is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is expected to open in 2015.  Its allocation for the current 2013-14 fiscal year is $96.1 million ($55 million for construction and $41.1 million for exhibits and acquisitions); Obama proposes $74.9 million for the new museum in 2014-15, including $50.8 million for exhibits and acquisitions and $24.1 million for construction.

The Smithsonian’s federal support for regular operations would rise 8.3% to $700.8 million under the president’s proposal, while its construction money would decline 5% to $150.1 million.

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At the National Gallery, operating support would increase 2.5% to $121 million, and funding for building improvements would increase 26.7% to $19 million.

While federal funding is a significant budget backstop for the Smithsonian, National Gallery and the Kennedy Center, like other nonprofit cultural institutions they also count on private donations. Box office earnings are crucial for the Kennedy Center, whose federal operating support is down $1 million from where it stood in 2011-12.

Obama’s previous budget proposal last spring had called for a 10% hike in overall arts and culture funding, but Congress limited the increase to 4.5%. Consequently, the current fiscal year’s outlay remains 2.1% below the pre-sequestration level of 2011-12.

If Obama’s new proposal passes unchanged, the federal investment in arts and culture would be about $20 million higher than the 2011-12 level -- a 1.3% increase over three years -- not enough to compensate for inflation.

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The Kennedy Center and the three grant-making agencies (which rely entirely on federal funding) have not fared nearly as well in recent budgets as the federally backed museums. The current spending power of the NEA and NEH is even with their pre-sequestration funding in actual dollars, but the money they're granting this year buys less than it did in 2011-12.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services’ funding remains 2.8% below its 2011-12 level, not counting the erosion from inflation. The Kennedy Center’s $22-million allocation for operations is down from $23 million in 2011-12, when it also had received $17 million for construction.

In addition to funding the six agencies devoted solely to arts and culture, the federal government provides some arts support under other departments' budgets, such as the arts component of public broadcasting, which receives $445 million a year in overall federal support. (Obama proposed keeping it level in the coming year.) The federal government also funds teacher training through the Department of Education, arts-oriented rehabilitation programs for veterans and cultural diplomacy programs administered by the State Department.

ALSO:

Lieu urges big budget hike to $25 million for state arts grants

Obama's arts budget plan goes beyond restoring 'sequester' cuts

House committee proposes funding cuts for NEA, other arts groups

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