Nevertheless, the listing of the grants in a geographic list does make a pretty clear point: five states pulled down over 50% of the theatre grant money. Again. The average grant size is substantially larger for those places, to the tune of about 25%.
As is usually the case when confronted with actual data that confirms an inequality, there is a quick rush to, well, demand more data. How many applications came from each state? We don't know. The NEA says in its press release "Through the Access to Artistic Excellence category, 789 grants out of 1,415 eligible applications are recommended for funding for a total of $24.9 million." That doesn't break it down according to discipline, nor does it indicate where the other eligible applications were from. But given the 55.7% funding rate, let's assume that the proportion of submitted applications was probably pretty similar to those funded. "Aha!" the theatrical birthers pounce, "So that's not really geographical bias, but just the reality of who submitted grants!" Perhaps so. But that's not the point. I'm not claiming, say, bias on the part of the peer review panels -- although I suspect that bias is there. What I am claiming is much simpler.
The point is that the theatre has become increasingly centralized (the top 5 states who received money are also the top five states who have the highest number of TCG-member theatres, for instance), and the NEA is simply reinforcing that centralization through its funding patterns. The question is not whether "that's the way things are," but rather whether "that's the way things ought to be." And if you answer, as I do, that it is not the way things ought to be, if you believe that the arts ought to reflect the diversity of the nation, a diversity which includes not only race but also things like class and geography, then the next question is what the NEA ought to be doing to change the map.
The "N" in NEA stands for "national," but to have more than 1/3 of the states in the nation receiving no theatre funding at all undermines that claim. Perhaps those states are cleaning up in the other categories, but I doubt it. Regardless, a centralized theatre scene diminishes the theatre's scope, influence, and overall health. It is something we, as theatre people, ought to be concerned about. It reinforces the disconnect between the populace and the arts, and gives credence to those who would claim that the arts are an urban elitist pasttime serving a small portion of the nation and therefore unworthy of government funding.
Our lack of commitment in this area echoes a similar lack of commitment to other forms of diversity. Like every social movement that has occurred throughout history, those who are benefiting from the status quo will make a lot of statements sincerely supporting the need for change while simultaneously defending the status quo and making sure the system that produces it stays in place.
What would I recommend?
- Recruit -- go out an actively seek theatres in underserved areas and encourage them to apply. As someone who has now written two NEA grants, I can tell you that they aren't easy. I can also tell you that, unless someone encourages you, it would never occur to many of us to even consider such an application.
- Change your criteria -- An analogy: if I want to date only tall blonde women and I have a pool of 100 to choose between, I am going to date a different woman if I choose the ten tallest women and date the one who is blondest than if I chose the ten blondest women and then dated the tallest. And no matter how I apply the criteria, I'm not going to be dating any short brunettes. The NEA's constant emphasis on the vague and undefined "excellence" knocks out all the short brunette theatres, because "excellence" is subjective and ends up being based more on money and media attention than anything else. Elsewhere, I have written about defining excellent not in terms of the work of art itself, but rather the interaction between the work of art and the audience, so that to be regarded as excellent, the interaction must be lively and vigorous -- either an energetic enthusiasm or an equally energetic rejection. That is an example of how a change in criterion can change the pool of grantees. I would suggest a commitment to using geographic diversity as a criterion, because it is unambiguous: you either are or aren't in North Dakota, you either are or aren't in a county with a population under 20,000.