Possible Endowment Elimination Will Not Eliminate NMAJH

Photo of the exhibit 1917: How One Year Changed The World at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Photo by Matthew Christopher

In March, President Trump’s first federal budget plan outline proposed eliminating a few key federal agencies, including the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

It was the first time a president has called for ending the endowments since their creation in 1965, according to The New York Times.

Over the 50 years of its existence, NEH has given about 6,200 grants to museums across the country, totaling about $750 million for roughly 2,600 exhibitions. In 2016, the NEH received $148 million from the federal government, which was about 0.003 percent of federal spending, per The Washington Post.

And while nothing has happened yet, the announcement may have given cultural organizations that receive NEH grants cause to worry.

On April 4, the Forward published an article titled “In Trump’s America, These 10 Projects And Organizations Are Endangered.” As you read the article, the first such “endangered” project and organization is 1917: How One Year Changed The World at the National Museum of American Jewish History, co-organized by the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.

The exhibition received a $325,000 NEH grant. In fact, the exhibition opened the same week that Trump announced his budget proposal.

1917 got in under the wire I guess I can say,” NMAJH CEO and Gwen Goodman Director Ivy Barsky said.

However, the endangered aspect of both the exhibit and the existence of the museum itself might be a bit overblown, as 1917 is already open.

The museum has received previous grants from the NEH as well as The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

The museum received a $40,000 NEH grant in April 2016 for the planning of the spring 2018 exhibition, Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music; a $300,000 NEH grant in July 2013 for the implementation of the 2014 exhibition, Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American; and a $150,000 grant from IMLS in September 2016 for the development of a forthcoming pop-up exhibition, Let My People Go: The Movement to Free Soviet Jews, per a museum official.

It also has a grant pending for the Leonard Bernstein exhibition that Barsky said they will hear about in August — provided the NEH still exists.

While she admitted she isn’t sure what will happen if they do not receive the grant for that project or if the NEH is no longer an agency, she added you can never count on receiving funding.

“They’re very, very competitive,” she said, “so it’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this because we absolutely know we’re going to get this, we’re confident we’re going to get this NEH grant.’ You never know that. You do it, you make it the strongest proposal you can possibly have, and know that yes, sometimes, if you don’t get that NEH funding, maybe that exhibition comes off the books and you don’t continue to fundraise for it or continue to work on it.”

And while an NEH grant is beneficial, eliminating the endowment will not eliminate NMAJH or “endanger” it, as the Forward suggests. But it might change how future exhibitions and projects are planned.

“The museum is not going to go away because we don’t have NEH funding,” Barsky said. “For us, does it mean that certain exhibitions might not get done and certain topics might not get covered because they are ambitious and those that we would hope to get NEH funding for? Sure. But they don’t pay for operations, they don’t pay to keep our doors open. … It’s project-based money.

“So will there be projects that don’t happen that are great humanity subjects and important to tackle and that we could use that incredible funding for?” she continued. “Does it jeopardize other support for exhibitions and programs? Sure, because when you say to other funders, like we did for 1917, ‘We have an NEH grant,’ that gives them — to borrow a Jewish term — a hechsher. Everyone then knows that this has the approval of the very highest standards that the NEH sets.”

Should the NEH be eliminated, it will put more responsibility on the private sector and individual donors who will have more power to make or break a project.

What she hopes people recognize are the public benefits that come with an NEH grant — namely requirements for the grantee such as a certain amount of free, open hours to accommodate those who can’t pay admission costs and a wider accessibility to the exhibition material through a traveling component.

If the NEH is eliminated, “it will weaken all of us in a way,” she said, “but less the institutions than the public that would be able to learn and grow from those things.”

To her, the possibility of eliminating federal agencies that support these projects would also reflect on the country as a whole, and not necessarily in a positive way.

“It is very sad for our country — forget about the museum,” she said. “It is very sad for our country if that’s what happens. … These are our country’s cultural assets and a civilized nation should be supporting the arts and culture and history and the public’s engagement with those subjects, and we are the only developed nation without significant — even if nothing changed about the NEA, NEH and IMLS — you can say that our country gives less to culture than almost any other developed nation on earth already.

“If these funds are or the possibility of these funds are taken away, it’s a sad moment for the country. Forget about individual institutions, it says something terrible about America.”

Contact: mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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