The Trump Administration’s proposed budget cuts to eliminate 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 have received significant attention. However, there has been little discussion of their potential impact on one segment of cultural institutions—African American museums. While an elimination of funding for any of these agencies will impact African American culture, the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) unique relationship with African American museums means that an elimination of this agency could pose distinct challenges for this field of cultural institutions. In 2003 when the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act (H.R.3491) was passed, the legislation not only established the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), but it also provided authorization for IMLS to establish a grant program to support African American museums throughout the United States. The grants, specifically named Museum Grants for African American History and Culture (AAHC), were first distributed on a competitive basis in 2006. Under this program, 137 grants totaling more than $13,00,000 have been made to African American museums. While grants have been distributed to museums in every region, the highest proportion of the funding has gone to the South where African American museums are concentrated.
The proposed elimination of IMLS throws back into focus earlier questions about the potential impact of NMAAHC on the broader field of African American museums. Before even H.R.3491 was passed, another bill, the National Museum of African American History and Culture Plan for Action Presidential Commission Act of 2001, was enacted. This bill called for the development of an action plan to build NMAAHC including exploration into the feasibility of such a project. One result of this effort was a nationwide survey of African American museums to assess their needs and to gain insight on how NMAAHC might effect them. A 2003 report that compiles findings from the study notes that while most respondents had favorable opinions about the prospect of NMAAHC, questions were raised about how the museum might impact the livelihoods of the broader population of black museums which was then estimated at around 237:
"The one issue that worries some respondents is that a National Museum would compete for visitors, collections, and income. The visitor issue is probably not a huge one, because most of the museums in the current survey have a predominately local audience. There is probably more at stake in terms of collections and income. The museums might fear that a National Museum would have the facilities, the curators, and the prestige to attract private collectors with significant collections. A National Museum would also have the high profile that corporate and foundation donors are keen to attach their names to. The museums probably also believe that a National Museum would have the inside track on federal money. However, very few museums in the current survey receive funds from corporations, foundations, or the federal government. If a National Museum can be successful in attracting corporate, foundation, and federal money, it could be used to develop a wide array [of] programs and exhibitions that are shared with other museums (Joy Ford Austin, National Survey of African American Museums, 2003, xvi)."
Just three months after NMAAHC opened in September 2016, applications for 2017 AAHC grants were due. If funding for IMLS is eliminated and the AAHC grants are ended, the issues raised in this 2003 report may become more salient.