Tuesday, March 03, 2009

If I Ran the NEA

Yesterday, I inveighed against the arts community for their superficial response to the LA Times' question "What would you do if you ran the NEA?" In case you haven't had an opportunity to click through the faces on the LA Times website, and running the risk of drawing Isaac's ire for "cherry picking" (apparently, to be fair, I should either quote everyone, or alternately, quote only those who say nice things), here are a few samples:

Phylicia Rashad: "I would invest the money in arts education in public schools. I would make it a priority." Really? All of it? That will make you some friends among the artists.

Neil LaBute: "If I ran the NEA, I would immediately dismantle all "artist" grants (solely because I've never been offered one myself) and use that money to create more diverse arts programs for inner-city schools. Just kidding. I'd definitely dismantle the grants because, as mentioned above, the awarding of said grants is obviously rigged and in desperate need of restructuring. I would not use the extra money in schools, however, because most kids wouldn't know "art" if it marched up and slapped them in the face. I would instead implement and fund various initiatives to examine "the sex lives of insects cited in the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare" and collect "recipe tips from noted female writers -- Aphra Behn to Naomi Wallace." Now that's money well spent on worthwhile projects -- just like my esteemed predecessors used to do." He goes on like this, obviously entertaining himself, but I don't feel the need to quote further. This confirms my opinion of Neil LaBute as a smartass cretin.

Bill Maher: "If I ran the NEA? I'd abolish it. I'd be the Gorbachev of federal arts endowing and destroy my own job as the head of it. Artists are so self-important -- art is basic to human nature, it will always be produced and does not need the government's help." He seems like such a liberal on his show, but Maher is actually a libertarian who will one day flip out just like Dennis Miller did.

Neil Patrick Harris: "So long as they keep funding public television and radio, I'm good. I grew up learning lots from "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" -- everything from the alphabet and numbers to sharing and a sense of humor, and I still listen to NPR daily. Ira Glass? "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!"? Great good times. Über-important. I can't imagine our world without them." Ahem.

Noah Wyle: "If I were NEA chief, I would hope to remember this: While the "nonprofit" arts industry enriches the cultural aspects of our society, we are not a charity. We are businesses that give fantastic return on invested dollars....I would tell everyone I meet to invest in us. We give great economic stimulus to every community where we work."
And so on. I'm sorry, but I don't find these responses thoughtful, innovative, or even mildly interesting. Here was an opportunity to discuss the impact the NEA could make on our nation, and these celebs decided to make a joke out of it. Others decided that their priority would be reinstating grants to individual artists (they need to tell Neil LaBute that there haven't been individual artist grants since the bruhaha of the 1990s, which is why he hasn't received one -- putz), asking for more money (which is not a vision for the NEA, nor even in the NEA's control, but it's like a reflex act for most artists, like the kid in D. H. Lawrence's short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner"), reinstate the WPA (it is so interesting to hear the WPA being mentioned again -- here's a challenge: the next time some artist friend of yours speaks admiringly about the WPA, ask them to name a WPA production other than Orson Welles' Harlem Macbeth, or ask them who ran the theatre wing and where she came from [hint: she was an academic, not an artist, perhaps an indication that it might be a good idea to have someone overseeing the project who had actually read a couple books]) and funding artists in schools (as long as they don't have to actually do that themselves -- those other artists, you know, the young ones who haven't made it yet, they ought to do it).

So what would I do if I ran the NEA? What if the L. A. Times had decided there might be actual thoughts from people who weren't celebrities?

First, I believe that the responsibility of the NEA should be to lead. I would be an activist NEA Chair, one who would use the alotted money to change the status quo significantly. Since my discipline is theatre, most of my ideas will be confined to this discipline. So:

1. Use 75% of the budget to fund institutions whose artistic staff has at least 50% who have their legal residence in the county where the theatre resides. It is time for the regional theatre to become truly regional.

2. Require that any institution who receives NEA funding provide ongoing educational opportunities for both young people and adults. And I'm not talking about subsidizing tickets, or doing school performances, or having backstage tours. I'm talking about the ongoing facilitations of community creativity. And not just classes -- performances, exhibits, readings, etc. All members of the artistic staff must participate -- no farming this out to the interns. And Robert Falls has to do double.

3. Reserve 90% of the budget for arts organizations in counties with populations under 500,000. This is generous to the metropolitan areas, since counties with populations under 500K represent over 96% of America. It's time to make arts funding look like America.

4. As part of the grantmaking process, require every member of an arts institution to submit a 5 - 7 page, double-spaced paper with bibliography outlining their beliefs about the arts place in American society, quoting at least five different books. We have to start somewhere. And Teresa Eyring: your paper has to be 15 - 20 pages.


joshcon80 said...

I'm totally with you on all of these except maybe #3, which deserves more thought than I've given it yet.

To #1 especially I say, "HELL. YES."

God, LaBute is such a dick bag.

isaac butler said...

these are some interesting ideas! Certainly more interesting than "i hate neil patrick harris".

(just to make it clear: my problem wasn't the lack of positive ideas, it was the lack of ideas period. Neil Patrick Harris is an idiot is not an idea. Neither is slagging off Teresa Eyring).

seriously tho, this is some interesting stuff! To respond:

1) sounds good

2) what about small arts organizations that receive NEA funding? By small I mean quite small. I would think ideally we'd have more 1-5 person operations funded by the NEA to move away from the Giant Institution model, but such organizations couldn't really fulfill this without a very very large grant from the NEA because they'd have to hire extra staff to implement it. What do you think about this conundrum?

Second, I think we'd have to create some sort of way to review the effectiveness/quality of the education programs to weed out orgs that are simply trying to get the money and don't really care about the pedagogical mission.

3) the 96% of America is geographic area, not population. Again with the cherry picking of statistics! I agree that more funding should go to less-populous areas than it currently does, but certainly mid sized cities need arts money too, don't they? Can't we all get along? Why should we decimate the arts funding in the places of concentrated population? Balance, my friend, balance. I know you're mad about the syndicate, but the Federal Project number one, the Ford Foundation and the NEA have all dumped millions and millions of dollars and countless man hours into lower populated areas of America in the intervening decades.

I think honestly your beef here is actually with State Arts Agencies. Much of (if not most of) the NEA's funding is simply regranted to SAA's. Its SAA's that are only funding the arts in their cities.

4) What is the purpose of this? I'm not opposed to it, I just wonder what eventual end you believe it serves.

Scott Walters said...

Actually, the 96% is the number of counties in the US that are under 500K in population -- that's not cherry picking, that's a fact. And the people who live in that 96% deserve the arts as much as those in the 3+% that currently gets the lion's share. Basing funding on population, which seems to be what you are implying, once again puts urban areas ahead of non-urban areas. And while I appreciate your assertion that money has been "dumped" (nice choice of words, that) by the Ford Foundation and the NEA, comparatively speaking the vast majority of money has gone to urban areas and large institutions. Yes, the Federal Arts Project DID focus on the country as a whole, and not just the major metropolitan areas, and that's what made it so effective. A little historical research by those who would invoke the WPA is in order.

Balance? Balance??? Where has been the balance over the last fifty years? Your idea of "balance" is maintaining the current status quo, which completely favors large institutions in urban areas. It is time to pay some reparations to the rest of the US that has been robbed of its cultural infrastructure. And passing the buck to the SAA is a cop-out. The NEA can require certain preconditions in order for states to receive the money.

As far as #2 is concerned, I'm not certain what you mean. A small arts organization would provide ongoing educational programs to the extent that its size permitted. Its proportional. And since I indicated that everybody in the organization had to participate, I'm not certain why hiring new staff would be necessary.

And I'm certain that there are no arts organizations getting grants for educational outreach who are doing it for the money and going short on quality, usually by making sure that only the interns are required to participate. But I'm all for guidelines and assessment. Hell, I'd like some assessment of what goes ONSTAGE as well.

#4: It exists to make sure that anyone contacted by the L A Times in the future actually has something intelligent to say.

isaac butler said...

sorry if my point was unclear, your statistic that you quote is:
"the 96% is the number of counties in the US that are under 500K in population -- that's not cherry picking, that's a fact. "

That's true, but a large section of the US population lives in that 3% of counties. YOu make it seem like 96% of the total US population lives in areas that are sub-500K in density. That's simply not true. The top 10 US cities (the smallest of which has a population of roughly one million) account for over 8% of the US population. That number increases as you count sub- and ex- urbs. (From a social planning standpoint, you actually don't want too much that's attractive going to sub- and ex- urbs because it is cheaper, healthier and more environmentally sound to use the urban centers you have.) That's all's I'm saying. The number you're using is misleading.

As for #2: Educational programs are complicated to administer, particularly when you aren't an accredited school. YOu have to do a lot of stuff involving insurance, waivers, logistics, if you're a nonresident company you need to raise money for space and then locate the space. There's a lot of administrative work that goes into it. Most small arts companies already have over-maxed-out the hours of their staffs. Hell, this is even true of midsized companies. There's a real administrative burden created by taking out an educational mission, someone has to handle it.

Second, as to the thing you're so confident doesn't exist... I hate to tell ya, but it does. I have a good friend who works for a foundation coordinating arts education grants. In the private funding sector, arts education grants are far far more common than general operating expense grants and generally more common than work development grants. So some companies create an "educational program" largely built around filling seats to their own shows and get grants for them. The money is then shuffled when need to general operating expenses. Ugly? Yes. But it happens. And it happens specifically because due to our Gov'ts failure to fund arts education in schools, there's a lot of private sector money out there for arts education programs outside of them.

From the rest of your comment, I think it's pretty clear that you want revenge for a perceived (and quite possibly real) historical slight rather a sustainable path forward that will lead to ahealthier arts environment for Americans. You want to shut out the larger cities because you feel you've been shut out. But the reasons for this existing reality are more complex then you're willing to admit and simple vengeance is not a way forward.

I said on my blog and in my comments that the balance needed to be shifted more towards less populated areas, and I have always since the beginning of my writing advocated for more government funding of smaller organizations over institutions. You react as if anything less than burning down Lincoln Center and using the money to create a series of small theatre companies in appalachia is a betrayal of God and Country.

isaac butler said...

oh hey, just for semi-accuracy's sake, i ran the numbers on wikipedia of the populations of US cities... and what i came up with (very roughly) is that there in urban areas larger than 500,000 people, roughly 40 million people live, which is more than 10% of the total US population.

I'll admit, i thought the number would be larger, but it's still over twice the size of the 4% number you got goin' on in your post!

I will also say, I've been to several of the cities in the 5-700,000 mark, and they're facing some lack-of-arts issues as well. You might want to at least consider hiking the population # up to a million.

Scott Walters said...

I'm confused: are you saying that there is more than 3% of the population in the top 3% most populous counties, and that I am trying to hide that fact? If so, mea culpa: I thought that went without saying. But if are you suggesting we apportion NEA money according to percent of population, I'd take that as a friendly amendment, because that still would mean that the lion's share of NEA funds would be going to places that have been virtually ignored, and that the New York Metropolitan Area would get roughly 5.9% of NEA funds. That's a deal.

I think you misread what I was saying about educational programs: what you say is true today, so why do you propose more policing if there were more changes? That said, I think the paperwork you describe is over-stated, and focused on formal arts education programs. Community service and volunteerism does not require all that, nor would working through a university's extension service. There are many ways to provide outreach.

And you can define my proposal as revenge if you like, and promote balance, but I am proposing a more long-term view of balance. Let's make the point by analogy: when a sports team wins a game, it doesn't get to keep the number of points it won by as a starting point for the next game, but that is certainly the case in the arts. Because Lincoln Center has been overly blessed in the past, it now has huge operating needs that it feels entitled to continue to have filled because, well, not to do so would be akin to burning them down. I suggest that private foundations and corporate donors continue to bless Lincoln Center and others of their ilk at a far larger percentage than smaller companies, and that the behemoths could survive by leaning on them a bit more while the NEA makes up for lost time.

I'm not interested in the status quo, the same tired policies that got us into this mess in the first place. I'm interested in change. Do you recognize this rhetoric? It comes from your own administration. And traditional approaches to the NEA are like Republican approaches to the economy: keep helping the rich and let the poor fend for themselves.

Dustin said...

What reason would any of these celebrities have to change how the NEA operates? They obviously don't need the funding or the grants because they make enough money already. Neil LeBute just gives a dick response: “I would not use the extra money in schools, however, because most kids wouldn't know "art" if it marched up and slapped them in the face.” I understand that most kids aren’t up to date with the most avant-guard styles, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to have their funding revoked….but maybe he was joking, and just wasting time with a stupid response.

And N.P.H. just gives a short biography about how he learned to spell. What does that mean???

I do like Bill T. Jones’ response; “It's common knowledge now that the arts are a significant part of our economic engine and a powerful tool for global diplomacy. As the head of the NEA, I would lobby to create a Cabinet post for the arts. We must move past this notion that the arts and culture are somehow frivolous.” That’s one of the few REAL answers, which can help the arts in this nation.