And yet, my impression from my contact with the NEA and with artists who look to the NEA for leadership is that the primary focus over the years has been on "supporting excellence." Recently, one need look no further than Rocco Landesman's August 7, 2009 interview with Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times to see this orientation stated plainly. Famously, Landesman had this to say: “I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman. . . .There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit.” While Landesman indicated he believed the NEA should be “perceived as being everywhere,” he immediately qualified it with this seemingly get-tough statement: “But I don’t know that we have to be everywhere if the only reason for supporting an institution is its geography.” So Landesman wants the NEA to be perceived as being everywhere without actually, you know, being everywhere. All this pluralistic democratizing of arts is nonsense. It's all about "excellence" and "artistic merit," and if that means people in Peoria have to drive a few hours to Chicago to see a show at Steppenwolf, well, so be it.
Given the enormous importance placed on "excellence" in the NEA's granting process, one would assume that over the past 45 years the definition of "excellence" would have been developed and made explicit. Going to the "Art Works" grant description, one finds the following:
Art Works encourages and supports the following four outcomes:The word "excellence" appears in two of those outcomes, and seems pretty important. So what does the word mean? Reading through the grant description, we find in the "Creation" section, "Support is available for projects to create art that meets the highest standards of excellence across a diverse spectrum of artistic disciplines and geographic locations." But that's the only reference -- no definition (although there is a nod to geographic diversity). Under "Engagement," the other place where "excellence" appears, it says "Support is available for projects that provide public engagement with artistic excellence across a diverse spectrum of artistic disciplines and geographic locations. These projects should engage the public directly with the arts, providing Americans with new opportunities to have profound and meaningful arts experiences. " So "artistic excellence" is equated to "profound and meaningful arts experiences."
- Creation: The creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence,
- Engagement: Public engagement with diverse and excellent art,
- Learning: Lifelong learning in the arts, and
- Livability: The strengthening of communities through the arts.
Notice that, if that is the definition, the focus is on "experiences." In other words, excellence resides not on the artist or the art itself, but in the interaction between the work of art and the spectator. I wrote about about this back in February in my post "In Search of (a Definition of) Excellence," where I suggested, "To be regarded as excellent, then, the interaction must be lively and vigorous -- either an energetic enthusiasm or an equally energetic rejection. This definition would not reward the interaction most prevalent in our current theatrical scene: bland, passive acceptance. An institution wouldn't seek to simply grow its audience willy-nilly, but actively seek to build an audience with the kind of people who would respond to its work actively and energetically; artists would be expected to create works of art not that simply demonstrated virtuosity, but rather created the circumstances necessary for combustion to occur."
In practice, however, this isn't at all how "excellence" is judged. As I wrote in February,"it is pretty clear that "excellence" means two things, at least when it comes to giving money to theatres: previous accomplishments and money. And maybe that's as good a definition as any, but I suspect you can see the inherent problem: if you follow that definition, the tendency is to reward the past rather than the future, the old rather than the young, the rich rather than the poor, thems that have rather than thems that hasn't." And Steppenwolf and the Goodman over Peoria -- much less Streator or Ottowa. In reality, "excellence" ends up being about credentials and media coverage, both of which work against small and rural communities. Thus, the "excellence" card is regularly played when the desire is to privilege arts institutions that are established, and given that urbanization of the art scene in America over the past 50 years, those established institutions are likely to be in urban areas. So much for the mission "to spread this artistic prosperity throughout the land, from the dense neighborhoods of our largest cities to the vast rural spaces, so that every citizen might enjoy America’s great cultural legacy."
When I consulted the NEA as to why my own "Our Town" grant was not funded, the notes from the review committee focused on excellence: WHO is going to be providing the art, and what are their credentials? Notice that my proposal was for a participatory arts program, and so the artists would be members of the community, not imported "professionals" from outside the community. Participatory arts, as the NEA knows from having recently published it own studies on the subject, is about enhancing the creativity of the citizenry. Credentials and press coverage are irrelevant.
As several commenters in my previous post point out, the issue of "quality" ("excellence's" cousin) may come into play in the grant application itself. Unlike metropolitan areas that have a large number of administrative employees specializing in development, small and rural communities, which are supposed to be a primary partner in the "Our Town" grants, are not likely to have professional staff who are focused on writing grants, especially arts grants. I think commenter Anita Lauricella, a grant reader herself, said it best when she wrote,"looking around at this post got me thinking about “grantsmanship” and quality.... By “grantsmanship” I mean the ability to put together a compelling and complete package. Not sure if this was an influence in these awards but I was wondering if the high success rate among larger communities reflects bigger organizations with paid and experienced staff. Development staff or paid consultants who make their living writing beautiful narratives, compiling glossy supplemental materials, and soliciting influential letters of support." .
This becomes particularly problematic when the lead time is short. For instance, I received an email at CRADLE asking me or my constituents to participate in the "Our Town" grant process only three weeks before a formal letter of interest was due. Given that the town of Bakersville NC (pop 357) has only a 4-person town board and no paid staff, the short time frame presented a challenge. Once we made the next cut and were asked to present a complete proposal, we had one month until it was due. Again, gathering the data and materials necessary, planning and writing the grant, and submitting it through the grants.gov website in such a short time span was extremely difficult. I invite you to go the the link above and examine the "Our Town" grant process -- it is very difficult, even for a veteran grantwriter like my partner at HandMade in America, Judi Jetson.
So the complicated NEA grant process works against small and rural communities who don't have experience with grantspeak even as they compete head-to-head with more experienced urban communities. Indeed, most small communities wouldn't even be aware that there was such a grant program as "Our Town," which would then lead to only a handful of proposals being submitted. As a result of these factors, a small number of grants from small and rural communities are submitted, and a larger percentage go unfunded because the applications lack polish. Remember, only 40% of the proposals from cities under 100,000 were funded versus 100% of the proposals for cities over a million. This, then, becomes a self-fulfilling process: we can't give money to small and rural communities if they don't apply, and if they do apply we can't fund them because their proposals aren't as good as the other professionally prepared grants. One doesn't have to prove overt individual bias in order to acknowledge that the process itself is set up to work against a certain demographic.
What's to be done? Ian David Moss suggests "One thing that I think is worth considering, though, is whether the NEA is in the best position to address rural arts directly. Perhaps it would be more effective to change the state/local partnerships formula so that more match money goes to rural states, and then come to an understanding with the states that they should focus a good portion of their resources outside of cities. The theory being, if someone's not in a position to write a really competitive grant, they might be better off if whoever is reviewing their work knows them personally and what they are capable of." This is pragmatic, and sounds somewhat easy, but I think sidesteps the issue. I think it is better to change an unfair system, rather than to outsource the work to someone else. The originating legislation mandates that the NEA focus on geographical diversity. If it is important enough to be in the mission, it is important enough to receive commitment from the agency. Also, the assumption is that state arts agencies are any more knowledgeable or committed to arts in rural and small communities than federal agencies. The fact is that state arts agencies are as captured by the metropolitan as anyone.
No, I think this demands direct action. Over the past 45 years, "excellence" has gotten the lion's share of commitment from the NEA; now, it is time to shift the emphasis. Not simply back to equality among the three legs of the mission, but to go even further and give greater emphasis to geographic diversity and to arts education. This should include having people on the peer review panels who know the field, live in small or rural communities, and who are committed to geographic diversity. There also should be much more active recruitment of organizations such as those listed on the first page of the data who could begin developing projects over time for the next round of grants. I would also suggest that the grants.gov process should be simplified, and include more space for qualitative writing, downgrading the amount of data required.
The legislation is clear. The question is: is there a commitment from those at the top, Mr. Landesman, to the actually fulfilling the mission? It isn't going to happen by staying in DC or NYC. To quote David Dower in another context, "the answer to that one is by being in motion in the world..." But whereas David sees this motion as coming from the bottom up, I would argue that it is incumbent on the NEA to be at motion in the world -- not just the world of Steppenwolf and Lincoln Center, but in the world of Bakersville NC and Ottowa IL (h/t/ CHAOS) and Whitesburg KY. That's what being a leader is.