Thursday, October 08, 2009

Conversation on the NEA

For the past couple of weeks, there has been a conversation (well, a series of statement laid out to look like a conversation) on "Barry's Blog" for the Western States Arts Federation concerning the NEA. Participants have included Steve Tepper (Engaging Arts), Ben Cameron (Doris Duke, former TCG), Ian Moss (Creatiquity), Patrick Overton (Front Porch Institute), Doug MacLennan (ArtsJournal.com) and many, many others including yours truly. To give a taste, I am pasting one of my contributions below, and there are many others that are well worth commenting on, both at Barry's Blog and on your own (should you be a blogger).

In response to Barry's question "
What would you like to see the Endowment accomplish? What policies should govern its actions? What should be its priorities? If you were to advise Rocco Landesman on what the agenda for the NEA should be --what would you tell him?"

SCOTT: First, I think the NEA should completely stop giving money to mega-institutions like Steppenwolf and Lincoln Center – those institutions that previous responders have noted currently have captured the NEA. Why? Because those organizations don’t need it. That little splash of NEA money disappears in the ocean of their multi-million dollar annual budgets without a trace. Instead, use the money where it will have a serious impact: small and midsize institutions in out-of-the-way places. New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles are rolling in dough; but hand out a decent grant in Paducah KY or Amery WI and watch things happen. It’s a big country, and most of it isn’t comprised of places with a million people. They deserve the arts, too.

Second, the NEA should make it clear that its focus isn’t on the artists, isn’t on the institutions, but is on its constituency, which is the American public. The focus should be on inspiring creativity in the public (see my comment on arts education), and that might, of course, involve “providing” works of art, but it also might involve facilitating creativity in the Average Joe. If they want public money, artists should be servants to the greater good, not special, privileged people whose only commitment is to their inner muse. If you take public money, you are a public servant. It is time that artists recognize that.

Finally, the NEA needs to swallow hard and recognize that its main contribution should be in promoting the arts of today, not the constant reinterpretation of works from the past. Antonin Artaud said it: no more masterpieces. We need to tell our own stories in a language that speaks to today’s audience about today’s life. There are plenty of foundations out there who will fund Shakespeare and Mozart, but the NEA needs to be funding institutions that are committed to finding and developing our own artistic worldview. Prior to the 20th century, the focus was on new work, not old – and as a result, we got Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Michelangelo and Leonardo. In the 21t century, what does America have? Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Michelangelo and Leonardo. We are an echo culture, not an originating one. That has to change.