Pat Williams

Pat Williams served as U.S. House representative for Montana from 1976 to 1997.

Eliza Wiley, Independent Record

President Donald Trump's budget blueprint, which proposes zeroing out all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, must have felt like a 1990s flashback to former U.S Rep. Pat Williams.

The Democrat, who served as Montana's sole House representative from 1979 to 1997, led efforts to fight NEA budget cuts twice during his tenure.

He's confident the agencies will prevail.

"I have often said, and I still believe it even in the face of Trump, the national endowments are bulletproof," he said Friday.

Once such defunding effort in 1990 was fueled by controversy over Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine, and over nude photo portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe, who oddly enough didn't directly receive NEA funds.

Williams, the chairman of the subcommittee that oversaw the agencies, made an unlikely advocate. The Butte native and cousin of Evel Knievel admittedly doesn't care for ballet or opera. His support for the NEA led him to be branded as "Porno Pat" by his opponents, and sign-carrying protesters greeted him at airports in both Washington, D.C., and Montana.

As in those past debates, Williams doesn't believe the current Congress will accept the cuts because there are too many members from rural states like Montana.

Major cities like New York and Los Angeles "do not need the NEA in order to have great art." Rural areas do, he said, citing how the funds help maintain community symphonies, theater troupes, art museums and more. Those constituents eventually made their support known.

"Frankly, it took artists and Americans a couple of attacks on the NEA before they rose to defend it," he said. "Once they did, the Congress was flooded with hundreds of thousands – literally hundreds of thousands – of phone calls and letters defending the agencies."

There are key differences to the current cuts. In prior attempts, members of Congress made proposals during the appropriation process. They weren't suggested by the president, who generally supported the agencies during Williams' time.

Nor does Trump's budget blueprint make arguments about specific artworks. The NEA, NEH and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which combined account for 0.07 percent of the federal budget, are listed among 19 total agencies to be cut. The proposal says Trump's budget "eliminates and reduces hundreds of programs and focuses funding to redefine the proper role of the Federal Government."

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, offered an emailed statement about the need to curtail federal spending.

“In a time when spending is out of control, we need to ensure every dollar is accounted for and is focused on delivering results for Montanans. The President’s budget refocuses on the safety and security of the American people. We need to make sure the federal government is more efficient and effective," he wrote.

Daines did not respond to a specific question about the arts funding.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has argued against public funding for the arts. In a 2016 report, it wrote, "private contributions to the arts and humanities vastly exceed the amount provided by the NEA. Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for plays, paintings, pageants, and scholarly journals, regardless of the works’ attraction or merit. Additionally, government funding politicizes art." Its comments on the NEH follow suit.

Williams noted that the funding has been "enormously helpful at leveraging private money to the arts."

According to the Los Angeles Times, "(t)he NEA's network of matching investors means that every dollar of direct federal funding leverages up to $9 in private and alternate public funds. The organization raised $500 million in matching support in 2016."

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, didn't respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Montana doesn't currently have a U.S. House representative since Ryan Zinke was appointed as secretary of the Interior Department. A special election will be held May 25 to select his replacement.

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Williams said he's fine with the argument that the government shouldn't fund art. 

"That argument's OK. The argument about freedom of expression is not OK," he said.

Williams didn't set out to be an advocate for artists' freedom of expression when the NEA cuts became a national issue.

He "inherited jurisdiction" over the NEA when he was named chair of the subcommittee on select education. With time, he grew so fond of the cause that he took the agencies with him when he moved chairmanships "like Linus with his blanket," he said.

One of the "great thrills I had in the Congress was the opportunity to defend the freedom of expression in a meaningful way," he said.

On a more philosophical level, Williams argues that "art can flourish without politics. The reverse is not true. Art reflects the diversity and pluralism of our society, which is free. And freedom is our bulwark against tyranny."

Politics and art are more often opponents than allies, he said, but they should always remain friends.

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