Trump wants to kill federal arts funding. What difference would that make?
Photograph by Bruce DeBoer for Washington Post
The wind is up in Wilson, N.C. Giant pinwheels and propellers start spinning atop tall and spindly kinetic sculptures called whirligigs, which have been erected on a village green being developed into Whirligig Park. The rotating wheels drive chains, belts and shafts that, in turn, set in motion whimsical characters and shapes. Little bicycle riders and unicyclists pedal and wave, helicopters hover, birds flap their wings, fighter planes change course.
The fantastic contraptions have been fashioned from the discard pile of American civilization. A freshly painted blue fan, 19 feet in diameter, spins majestically thanks to the graceful repurposing of the rear axle of a truck, while another big pinwheel is adorned with 96 shiny metal milkshake cups. Vollis Simpson, the junkyard artist who built these figures, worked from a palette that also included ...
scrap metal, bicycle wheels, attic ventilators, hubcaps, brake disks, side-view mirrors, light fixtures and highway signs. His day job was moving houses and hauling heavy machinery. He never threw away anything because, as he used to say, “Next week you’ll need it.”
Long before the National Endowment for the Arts, or anybody else, thought his “windmills,” as he called them, were fit for a city park, he erected them on his family’s land out in the country. The effect was so surreal that the grove became a destination that teenage joyriders dubbed Acid Park.
“Back when I started this mess you never heard of this word ‘art,’ ” Simpson, who died in 2013 at 94, once said. “I’m just an old country boy.” So he was stunned, and a bit tickled, when his whirligigs were called upon to help save Wilson’s ailing downtown.
Much as a whirligig is a meditation on cause and effect, on the way consequence builds upon consequence, Whirligig Park fits within a larger web of chain reactions rippling through the nation. As the Trump administration proposes next fiscal year to eliminate four pots of federal funding for culture — the National Endowment for the Arts ($148 million last year), the National Endowment for the Humanities ($148 million), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($445 million) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services ($230 million) — communities across the country are left to ponder what difference that would make.
The total money at stake at the four agencies — about $970 million — is a drop in the $3.9 trillion federal budget. That’s a data point that can be argued both ways: Arts advocates say the cuts would scarcely reduce the deficit but would cripple the nation’s cultural life. Budget hawks say the multibillion-dollar culture industry is so well-endowed by philanthropic elites that the comparatively minuscule federal contribution would not be missed.
After President Trump released his “Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” in March, the response was studded with dire assertions from defenders of the agencies. Meanwhile, some old Washington hands noted that past threats to hobble these agencies have always failed. (Trump’s detailed budget proposal for fiscal 2018, released in May, would give the four agencies a total of $124 million to fund an orderly shutdown.) What was lacking in the discussion, it seemed to me, was a closer look at how these federal dollars reverberate in the lives of communities and individuals — if they do at all.