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What Does a Government Shutdown Mean for Art Museums?


What Does a Government Shutdown Mean for Art Museums?
The Smithsonian Museum of Art, Image Courtesy of InExhibit

So, the government shut down for 60 hours. While the government may be back up and running again, it looks like nothing was actually resolved. Since its more than likely to happen again (the next vote takes place on February 8, so mark your calendars), we took a look at what a prolonged shutdown would do to the art world.  

First, let's talk about what a government shut down actually is, who it directly affects, and why it seems to happen so often. Basically, the government is funded by laws that must be passed through Congress. In the recent shut-down, Democrats and Republicans reached a stand-still over one of the most pressing issues of the past year: immigration. The Trump administration is attempting to repeal deportation protections for young unauthorized immigrants (commonly known as DREAMers) under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival). If repealed, these young immigrants, a great number of whom have lived in the United States for the better part of their lives, will be left without legal protections, potentially facing deportation. The majority of Democratic officials have opted to withhold support from government funding until the administration changes its decision to repeal DACA. Bills need a 60-vote majority to be passed, which means that at least nine Democrats would have to vote in favor of the bill. If a majority vote cannot be met, the government shuts down. (Think 12 Angry Men, but with more angry men). 

To put it briefly, when the government shuts down, funding for "non-essential" government-funded organizations stops. A number of departments are unaffected by the shutdown. Social Security checks are on an automated system, so they will continue to be mailed out; the Justice Department will continue criminal litigation; medicare and medicaid will remain in effect; military operations will continue (though without guaranteed pay); federal courts will remain in tact; the U.S. Postal Service will run normally, and National Parks and memorials will likely remain open. (In October 2013, during the last government shutdown, the National Park Service received a ton of backlash for closing down National Parks and monuments, so this time the Interior Department is vowing to try to keep the parks open to the public with reduced staff.) The EPA has announced that they have enough resources to stay afloat despite the shutdown, at least until January 26. However, many government-employed citizens are pretty screwed by a government shutdown. A number of workers will be put on temporary leave, or working with pending pay. Federal agencies including the IRS and the Department of Education be closed. Fifty percent of those working in Health and Human services will be on furlough (which adds up to approximately 41,000 people). But I know you'll be positively overjoyed to hear that lawmakers will continue to get their paychecks, without a semblance of interruption. 

And on that positive note, we turn to government-funded arts and culture institutions.  Obviously, art is not by any means an "essential" facet of United States government operations, so it's more than likely that in the event of government funding cuts, public arts institutions could be the first to go. (The Trump administration has already voiced plans to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.) Let's take a look at how the current shutdown is affecting the nation's arts institutions. 

Over the weekend, The Smithsonian Museum, the world's largest museum, research, and educational center, announced that they have the funds to “follow normal operations and remain open” to visitors on Monday, January 22 (but not beyond), despite some incredibly disheartening news that "live-animal cameras, including the panda cam, will not be broadcasting" at the National Zoo. (Fortunately, however, officials have assured the public that the animals will continue to be well-cared for and fed.)

GIant PandaGiant Panda Cam, Smithsonian's National Zoo, Image courtesy of Huffington Post

The Smithsonian's New York institutions, including the Heye Center and the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum will be closed for the duration of the shutdown (including Monday), so if you were planning to take a trip to see the innovative life-enhancing designs in the staggeringly important Access+Ability exhibition, or a plethora of Native American artifacts, you might want to put it off. 

Maptic ModelMaptic (Tactile Navigation System for the Visusally Impaired, 2017, designed by Emilios Farrington-Amas

If the Senate is to remain in limbo, the Smithsonian Institution's museums, (including the National Natural History Museum, the National Air and Space Museum, the American Art Museum, the African Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Sackler Gallery, and the Portrait Gallery, to name a few) along with the National Zoo will be shutdown completely aside from employees who will oversee and manage the collections. Better not to plan a heist though, if that's what you're thinking, because exhibitions are still highly secured. During 1995s shutdown, which lasted three weeks, National Museums, government buildings, and monuments were closed, leaving the institutions at a loss of an estimated 2 million visitors. 

Regardless of the outcome of this current government shut down, the truth is, there have been 18 governmental shutdowns since 1974, each averaging a little under a week long. The last government shutdown was in October 2013 and lasted 16 days; the record is three weeks. For museums, the longer the shutdown, the less people they're able to serve. Considering how inconsistent and mercurial the President's demands are, we might be seeing more frequent shutdowns in the few years to come—so next time you feel like heading to The Smithsonian museums, you might want to check whether or not we have an operational government.



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