Heard on the Hill

Trump wants to defund the arts. Will Republicans defy him for a third time?

‘Maybe I’m a sucker, but I don’t believe they were lying to us,‘ says ‘Rent’ star Anthony Rapp

“Barry” star Anthony Carrigan, here in 2018, was one of several actors on the Hill this week to lobby for NEA funding. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images file photo)

Anthony Carrigan was a shy kid whose hair kept falling out. He had trouble making eye contact with others and wore hats to cover his bald spots. That’s because Carrigan suffers from a disease known as alopecia, which causes body hair to fall off in clumps. The disease was tremendously damaging to his fragile self-confidence. That is, until Carrigan began acting in a children’s community theatre.

“I was a pretty poor student,” says Carrigan, who now stars in HBO’s “Barry,” playing an affable Chechen gangster named NoHo Hank. “But once I found my love for acting and the arts, it made me a better student. It gave me more confidence. My social life became better. It affected me in such a drastic way across so many different arenas.”

Carrigan was one of several actors on Capitol Hill on Thursday for the Creative Coalition’s advocacy day, during which Republicans and Democrats alike assured the entertainers that they would fund the National Endowment for the Arts despite President Donald Trump’s antipathy toward the program.

For three years in a row, Trump’s budget has proposed eliminating the NEA. Of course, the White House doesn’t make spending decisions; Congress does. And since 2017, a Republican-led Congress has ignored Trump’s repeated requests to kill the program and funded it anyway, albeit at lower levels than Democrats typically would. For instance, the program received $155 million in fiscal 2019, down from the $167.5 million of 2010, when Democrats controlled the House, the Senate and the White House.

Sure, the NEA’s funding number may be a drop in the bucket of a $4.7 trillion 2020 spending proposal, but the actors are well aware that arts funding has become a battle in the country’s culture wars, a way for some conservatives to express disdain for the liberal values allegedly espoused by Hollywood.

Many of the actors at the coalition’s gala later that night shared similar stories as Carrigan’s, making the case that the arts are an essential but overlooked component of children’s education, providing a much needed outlet for self-expression and personal development. But they’re also aware of the NEA’s reputation as some sort of slush fund for so-called coastal elites.

“The money for the National Endowment of the Arts does not fund Hollywood movies,” said Anthony Rapp, star of the hit Broadway musical “Rent.” “It goes to developing artists and into the communities that have no other means.”

The irony is that arts education in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York receive plenty of private funding, according to “Grey’s Anatomy” actress Caterina Scorsone. “It’s a total misunderstanding,” she says. The NEA serves people in small communities who don’t have access, helping to deal with hardships ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to opioid addiction.

Rapp says several Republicans, including Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Fred Upton, told them they plan to ignore Trump’s request and are onboard with funding the NEA. “They said, ‘He will always zero it out. We control the budget. You don’t have to worry about it.’”

Wisconsin Republican Sean Duffy even told them they were “preaching to the choir,” according to Rapp. “I mean, maybe I’m a sucker, but I don’t believe they were lying to us.”

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