What a declining federal arts budget means for art photographers

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The federal arts budget, after waging war on Conservative lawmakers for 36 years, is now waving a white flag.

The Trump administration has clarified its plans: it will phase out the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with a finalized budget underway. Steve Bell, former personnel director of the Senate Budget Committee, likened the funding of targeted programs to a simple ripple in federal spending.

“These programs are not just a mountain of beans,” he said, as reported The New York Times.

At the end of the Reagan era, a photograph plunged Congress into a debate over federal funding for the arts. Piss Christ, an infamous piece depicting Christ in the pee by artist Andrew Serrano, has prompted public figures like Newt Gingrich to speak out against the misuse of public funds for celebrations of human excrement and promiscuity.

Today, funding for the arts is less than one percent of the federal budget.

The National Endowment for the Arts has a rich history of educating photographers. In 1966, Bruce Davidson received the first federal grant awarded to a photographer. His exhibition, East 100th Street, explored the intersecting themes of race and poverty and was first shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He received $ 12,000 for the grant; to put that in perspective, the current administration’s projected spending for the year is $ 4 trillion.

By 1995, the NEA had assisted over 600 photographers in the production of their art.

Freelance photographers earn a median salary of $ 26,875 per year, according to data collected by the National Endowment of the Arts itself. With nearly half of photographers barely exceeding the poverty line, NEA programs like Art Works help photographers immensely, allowing them to mount exhibitions, publish books, and experiment with new and old techniques, to to name a few. Subsidies have enabled art photographers to survive without health insurance, pension plans, or work insurance.

“If I had to define the vocation itself, I would say that I am a juggler,” says photographer, teacher and former waiter Stephan Brigidi in The Pacific Standard. “I juggled teaching, commercial work and artistic work to find a balance. All of this was to support my artistic work. This is where my heart is.

He photographed his own share of bar mitzvah.

Wedding anniversaries too.

As federal arts funding draws its final bow, artists must find new ways to be creative. For some, that means working on more commercial projects, event photography, or education. Yet for those who are less willing to work commercially for moral reasons, the future is uncertain. But hasn’t he always been in the art, after all?


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