WASHINGTON – Dispense with the notion that most federal arts grants go mainly to struggling artists and fledgling nonprofits scrambling to get by.
The rich nonprofits tend to get richer, and financial need seems to play little role in the federal government’s funding decisions, according to a report released Tuesday from the Illinois nonprofit OpenTheBooks.com.
Consider the “Met Gala” benefit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in May. Madonna, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriquez, to name a few, contributed sizable sums for a museum that raises up to $300 million annually and boasts assets of $3.7 billion. Since 2009, the federal government has awarded the Met $1.2 million.
By contrast, 1,027 comparatively low-budget nonprofits received $1 million in FY 2016 grants.
The report scrutinized federal arts and humanities grants for FY 2016 through the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities (NFAH), an umbrella agency overseeing the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Library Services. All told, the NFAH granted $441.1 million to 3,163 entities in FY 2016, including nonprofit arts organizations, colleges and universities, government-affiliated programs and Native American tribes.
“Why are taxpayers funding nonprofits that have assets of at least $1 billion?” the report asked. “Do charities have a right to public funding no matter what their balance sheet?
“If the public purpose is to fund the starving artist, then why are small organizations (less than $1 million in assets) receiving just $1 of every $4 in NFAH nonprofit grant-making? Who can explain the public purpose in forcing working-class taxpayers to fund arts organizations that obviously don’t need the money?”
OpenTheBooks.com is a watchdog group launched by former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Adam Andrzejewski, who ran for Illinois governor as a Republican in the 2010 election and has sought to make public government data. OpenTheBooks found that 71 “asset-rich” nonprofit organizations – groups with more than $3.7 billion in assets – received grants totaling $20.5 million in fiscal year 2016.
Debate over federal funding for the arts has taken a decidedly political turn since March, when President Donald Trump proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Trump also called for killing funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – a crucial revenue source for National Public Radio, a frequent Trump critic.
Arts advocates lambasted Trump’s plan, bracing themselves for deep cuts in arts funding in the 2018 fiscal year.
“The American people are recognized for their innovative spirit, and these grants represent the vision, energy and talent of America’s artists and arts organizations,” said Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “I am proud of the role the National Endowment for the Arts plays in helping advance the creative capacity of the United States.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the report.
The OpenTheBooks.com study also found that in FY 2016:
- Affluent colleges and universities – 258 of them with assets totaling $428.3 billion – received grants totaling $146.2 million, the report found.
- Nearly half of all grant dollars – $210 million – went to recipients in 10 states, lead by New York ($44.8 million), California ($41.6 million); and Texas ($20.3 million).
- The federal government awarded $4.8 million to Native American tribes.