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Sequestration And The Arts: How Cuts At The NEA, Smithsonian, And PBS Will Affect All Of Us

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Breathe easy: the sequester has no discernable impact on nude male-focused exhibits in Austria. | AP

The new budget overhaul known as sequestration is carving at every federal entity in America, from the Centers for Disease Control down to the Interior Department’s helium fund.

Naturally, the arts -- that favorite target of government cuts even in good times -- aren't safe. These budgets affect even casual art patrons: In D.C., the Smithsonian Institution runs the largest network of museums in the world, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting beams programming into American homes around the clock for free. A National Endowment for the Arts grant can legitimize a young novelist into a household name.

But it's hard to tell whether these institutions are truly in danger, given how vast and murky the details of the sequester are. How deep are the cuts anyway? And how will they affect our lives on the ground? The Huffington Post canvassed the largest federal arts entities, as well as budget experts, to find out what to expect in the coming year.

The Smithsonian Institution:

Over at the granddaddy of museum complexes, the five percent sequestration cut means a $40 million loss for the entire operation, including the National Zoo. A spokeswoman assured the Huffington Post that museums will not be closed, nor are there any current plans to furlough employees. But contracts will be reduced, and there’s a hiring freeze on.

“Mostly we’re absorbing that reduction through delayed maintenance of all kinds,” the spokeswoman said, using the hypothetical example of a roof that needs patching (while the sequester is on, “it’ll get a temporary patch”).

There is, however, one slice of the National Mall where all roofs will be perfect. Maintenance deferrals won't be applied to the Smithsonian's high profile, in-progress African American Museum, where President Obama and Laura Bush broke ground just this February. The $500 million project is still projected to be completed in 2015.

The National Endowment for the Arts:

The NEA grants money to organizations as well as to individuals. At the direst end of the spectrum, this means grantees use the cash to ward off insolvency while they work -- in 2011, for instance, more than half the literary awardees were poets .

The NEA’s five percent sequestration cut translates to a $7.3 million loss over the course of its 2013 fiscal year. This loss must be “prorated equally between our grants and our administrative budget,” an NEA spokeswoman told the Huffington Post (not all entities are receiving directives on how to enact the cuts, but the NEA is).

In other words, grantees are not protected in the way of the Smithsonian's African American Museum. There's no leaky roof that can be temporarily ignored to save a poet.

However, the rules may change come March 27, according to Isabel Sawhill, an analyst at the Brookings Institute who helped oversee NEA budgeting during the Clinton administration. On that day, the bill that determines the NEA budget expires, and talks to set a new one begin. The “negotiating and posturing” that will inevitably arise makes compromise on other financial issues -- such as sequestration -- likely. If the NEA ends up able to enact the cut as it sees fit, it may choose to protect grants.

Still, the March showdown carries the risk of a fate far worse, if less likely: stalemate, and subsequent government shutdown. “A five percent cut is not going to destroy the art community in the United States, but a government shutdown with no funding whatsoever would be traumatic,” Sawhill told the Huffington Post.

In the meantime, arts organizations directly funded by the NEA are slated to lose 3.2 percent of their funding, and state art agencies, 2.7 percent.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting:

The “largest single source of funding for public radio, television and related online and mobile services” is taking, you guessed it, a five percent cut.

But wait! That’s actually good news. Last November, the Office of Management and Budget told CPB officials to expect an 8.2 percent cut from sequestration. The CPB responded by acting as if it would lose more, safeguarding 10 percent of the corporation’s budget before issuing grants.

That forward action is documented in a press release the CPB issued late last month, which states that each public radio station received 70 percent of its grant last year, with the remaining 30 percent going out in checks this month. However, it continues, “the tricky part is figuring out how to handle payments after that.”

Indeed. There’s no further indication yet as to how the sequestration will ripple through CPB, whether in the form of furloughs, leaky roofs, or -- hopefully not -- stations closing. (Several calls placed by the Huffington Post were not returned.)

As with the NEA, the CPB’s budget is also facing review, which could make matters worse.

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