Deana Haggag Leads USA's Fight To Protect The Arts Against Trump's Budget Knife

Photo: Olivia Obineme

Photo: Olivia Obineme

Deana Haggag made a strong statement about protecting the arts in America, now under the knife in the Trump administration. The new president and CEO of the philanthropic nonprofit United States Artists until Inauguration day, writes “It wasn’t lost on me what it means to take on the title of president of an organization whose acronym is USA,” Haggag said recently during an interview in Chicago, her USA home base. 

Less than 100 days later, Haggag is facing Trump's proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Indeed, Big Bird is under the knife. The arts in America represent about $741 million yearly, or less than one tenth of 1 percent of annual federal spending.

The arts generate $135.2 billion annually in a boost to the US economy -- a fact not lost on a growing list of Republicans in Congress, who are against these cuts. 

A letter signed by 11 House Republicans urges Ken Calvert and Betty McCollum, chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, to continue funding the NEA.

They propose a budget of $155 million in fiscal year 2018, a slight increase over the $147.9 million that was allocated in 2016. ArtNet reported on Monday that 11 Republicans in the House signed a letter not only rejecting the zeroing out of federal funding for the the National Endowment of the Arts but proposed a small increase from the 2016 allocation of $147.9 million to $155 million. 

In other ways, it's impossible to quantify the positive impact of the arts on civic life. “We need the arts because they make us full human beings,” sociologist Eve L. Ewing wrote in The New York Times. “But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism.”

In 1937, ascending leaders of the Third Reich hosted two art exhibitions in Munich. One, the “Great German Art Exhibition,” featured art Adolf Hitler deemed acceptable and reflective of an ideal Aryan society: representational, featuring blond people in heroic poses and pastoral landscapes of the German countryside. The other featured what Hitler and his followers referred to as “degenerate art”: work that was modern or abstract, and art produced by people disavowed by Nazis — Jewish people, Communists, or those suspected of being one or the other. The “degenerate art” was presented in chaos and disarray, accompanied by derogatory labels, graffiti and catalog entries describing “the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or pencil.” Hitler and those close to him strictly controlled how artists lived and worked in Nazi Germany, because they understood that art could play a key role in the rise or fall of their dictatorship and the realization of their vision for Germany’s future.

Haggag's organization United States Artists was created after deep cuts to the arts in the early 2000s. At 30, she is considered young for her job, coming off a career largely focused on curating in New York City, Cairo, and Baltimore, where she most recently headed the traveling museum The Contemporary. She was raised in a large family in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the daughter of Egyptian immigrants. “I am not an artist, I never have been, but I’ve come to understand who I am through the arts, as a curator and as a person,” Haggag said. “Also, my parents are from Egypt, so there are ideas about colonialism and blackness and being African and being American and, growing up, when I didn’t have language for those things, there was always an artist who could help navigate that for me in his or her work. Understanding myself as a black woman, a brown woman, an Egyptian, and an American has been through the lens of all these amazing thinkers.” Read her interview with Vogue.