Thursday, May 19, 2011

Some Observations on NEA Grants

Last night and this morning, I posted some number crunching of the latest theatre grants given by the NEA. I'd like to do more, and maybe I will, but the next step -- examining the populations of the places where grants were given -- requires a great deal more time, and I'm not certain it is worth the effort. A quick glance through the list ought to make it pretty clear that most of the grants went to metropolitan areas. But if I get the urge, maybe I'll pull that information together.

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
I am not suggesting that those who received an "Access to Excellence" grant are in any way unworthy -- this isn't a slam on the theatres in those five states, or those three cities who raked in a haul. It is a call for a commitment to greater equity in the arts, and greater diversity. It is a call to do what is best for the art form as a whole, for the artistic ecosystem if you will, instead of protecting what you have. The result might be a healthier theatre scene for us all.


Liz M said...

Hey Scott. Posted some related thoughts here:

Scott Walters said...

Thanks, Liz. Actually, I have suggested that the NEA become a venture capital organization focusing on young organizations in underserved communities. Yes, that would be a big change. But it would change the face of the arts scene in this country, and it needs to be changed.

isaac butler said...

First off: thanks for doing this number crunching. And thanks for offering concrete suggestions. Both are very helpful for moving this conversation forward...

That said, if I may fact check for just one moment...

You write " Perhaps those states are cleaning up in the other categories, but I doubt it."

It turns out that using the very criteria you are using here (federal spending) it's very easy to answer whether the states that receive no NEA grants are cleaning up in other ways. And if you measure it as a ratio of federal spending to tax dollars generated by the state... here's what you get (all data courtesy of the tax foundation):
(Ratio is express as $$ received from gov't / $$ paid to gov't):
Most of them are beneficiaries:

WY: 1.11/1
WV: 1.76/1
UT: 1.07/1
SD: 1.53/1
SC: 1.35/1
RI: 1/1
ND: 1.68/1
NE: 1.10/1
MS: 1.29/1
IO: 1.1/1
HA: 1.44/1
AK: 1.2/1

A handful are not:

NV: .65/1
NH: .71/1
NJ: .61/1
DE: .77/1

Meanwhile, of the states at the top of the list:
NY: .79/1
CA: .78/1
IL: .75/1
MN: .78/1
PA: 1.07/1

So of that group, only one state is a beneficiary state. It's simply not the case that in terms of federal spending the states that get NEA money are already getting a disproportionate share of the money that's out there. Given the generally good job that MN does at funding the arts, and given our budget short falls this year, I would be perfectly happy to send our NEA funding to West Virginia or even a less well funded state like Iowa in exchange for getting their per capita share of tax revenues.

(NOTE: in case it's not obvious, I do not think that states should get a 1/1 ratio of taxes to spending from the federal government. That would lead to pushing our poorest states further off a cliff which would hurt our poorest citizens in those states. But it's simply not the case that the federal government spends all of its time discriminating against less population-dense states. Heck. by the rules that make up of the Senate and electoral college, less populous states are given a major advantage. And before we start getting into an argument over who has it worse, my point really is simply that these things are very complicated.)

Scott Walters said...

Isaac -- I also appreciate your number-crunching. However, I meant cleaning up in other ARTS areas (like, say, Dance or Music). These numbers are apples and oranges -- my focus is solely and totally on the arts. I don't see the fact that, say,the State of Washington gets a lot of air force money a reason why they shouldn't get arts money. And in addition, I find the per capita taxes generated suspicious, because a state that has a lot of low-paid workers (say, an agricultural or manufacturing state) would generate fewer dollars than, say, Silicon Valley. It is one of those statistics that is designed to make rural states look like the beneficiaries of government largesse while rich states like NY are not getting their fair share.

Keith said...

Some thoughts on all this...

1. Not sure how you (or they) defined population, but hope its not by municipality. NYC as an example is certainly serving upwards of 20 million people in the area, as well as hundreds of thousands (millions?) of visitors each year. All of whom may and do consume various arts programs.

2. Comparing NY, Chicago, and LA to the rest of the country on a proportional dollars vs population basis really has little to do with where & why arts organizations develop and thrive (and therefore need support). I doubt it has much to do with NEA or any other government funding.

3. All this discussion of distribution of funding does is take the conversation away from the real issue of shrinking funding of the arts everywhere. A more productive approach would be figuring out how to encourage government, public & private companies, and citizens to help develop, fund, and participate in arts programs in their communities.

Scott Walters said...

One way to encourage greater support for public funding of the arts is to make sure the arts are available everywhere in the US. And so we are back to geographic distribution. Sorry, Keith, but pushing this issue to the back of the bus isn't acceptable.

RLewis said...

Scott, Scott, Scott, I guess it was silly of me to think that since you'd now gotten your nea, you would have been done with bashing them. But there you go again.

And you're very good at taking the smallest of data points and drawing the biggest conclusions. You are a very smart man.

But even though you disagree, it doesn't make you correct that the number of applications don't matter. If every application outside of the big 3 states got funded, and only 1 in 100 in the big 3 got funded, then statistically, that does matter. They can't fund theaters that don't apply or don't exist.

If there are 20 theaters in one state and 200 in a big 3 city, statistically, that does matter.

Also, I noticed that some funded projects are for events in a big city that will be attended by theater people from around the US; and, I'll bet that several of the big 3 funded projects will tour or play gigs in many of the lesser funded states. But I didn't see that figure into your data.

Then there's also the number of projects in big 3 states that serve nearby states. I don't know about CA and IL, but I do know that a lot of NYC projects are attended by audiences that easily come in from NJ, CT, PA and beyond.

And maybe the hardest thing to account for is Impact. And Density plays a large roll in that. The smallest borough in NYC has a larger population than 10 entire states - just 1 borough. If NYC were a state, it would be the 11th largest in the nation (right after NC). If 1 in every 1000 people actually attend an nea funded project, then in a big city the project might still serve enough audience members to have a worthwhile impact. But in a large state with a small population spread over thousands of miles, it's hard for enough people to get to the theater where a fund project happens. If only 100 taxpayers are close enough to attend a funded project, I don't know if the impact will be worth the taxes spent. (Personally, if you're entire state has a smaller population than Staten Island, I don't know if you deserve 2 senators - that's not equal representation.)

Lastly, there's the issue of each state's responsibility: if a state govt is cutting or eliminating its arts funding and devaluing the arts every chance they get, then I don't know if they deserve (or even want) national funding. NY State works hard on its arts economy, and that effort should be rewarded. Other states - not so much.

Look, I grew up in Raleigh, and if there were a viable arts economy there, I would have never left. I love NC, but its leaders just do not put much stock in theater. (They prefer to use their federal dole to pay farmers to NOT grow tobacco.) It's the same for many other states even though I really wish that they had a bigger slice of the nea pie. It's too bad; but if you truly want to make an honest case for cuts to the big 3's arts $, then you really need more factual data that's not so easy to see through.

Scott Walters said...

RLewis RLewis RLewis -- I always love it when people start out patronizingly...

With all due respect, data is relevant according to question that is asked. The question I ask is: is a NATIONAL Endowment for the Arts truly national? The questions you are asking are different: Does the funding reflect the distribution of proposals? (Probably) Do some of the projects "serve" people from elsewhere? (Yes) Do people travel to arts events? (Definitely) Does density affect attendance? (Doubtful -- if you think that 1 in 1000 in NYC attend an NEA sponsored event, I think you need to think again. On the other hand, Stage North in Washburn WI (pop about 2500) sold 10,000 tickets last year -- 4 tickets per capita. Do THAT math on NYC's population and then get back to me about density) And finally, should the NEA give money to states according to the amount the state itself allots? (No -- this would be an example of the rich getting richer)

As far as a "viable arts economy," I respectfully disagree, unless you define it as "87% unemployment with a median income for working artists of $7475." It's a pretty low bar.

The NEA is a federal agency -- it should serve the nation, not just 5 states. And that's an honest argument.

Melanie said...

Hi, Scott,

Thanks for this post. Growing up in a rural area (mid-Missouri), I know all about the lack of arts programming in rural areas. And I know that it is wanted and needed.

I now work in Staten Island, which is not funded at the level of other counties by NYS and NYC. So I've done the same kind of number crunching many times.

One thing to be aware of, that we have found is an issue on Staten Island, is the number of rural organizations applying for grants. You can't win, if you don't play. And if rural arts organizations aren't applying, they won't get funded.

What we've found is that the number of organizations applying in Staten Island are substantially less than the number applying in other NY counties.

So an issue here might also be that the NEA is not getting quality applications from the less funded states.

Having service organizations, like local arts councils, that can encourage and help artists and arts organization participate in competing for grants is one way we work on this problem in Staten Island.

Melanie Franklin Cohn