Monday, March 28, 2011

If I Ran the NEA: One Suggestion That Would Change the Face of the Arts

After having been interviewed last week on Studio 360 (in an unfortunately-named episode called "Too Much Theatre?") discussing the #supplydemand "controversy," I wanted to follow up with a few thoughts on how I think the NEA ought to handle its business. So here is a single recommendation that would change the face of the American theatre (and frankly, it ought to be applied in all of the other arts too):

Recommendation: The NEA ought to confine itself to providing seed money for theatres in underserved communities.
     There are two pieces to this recommendation:
            1. "providing seed money": applicants receive money for a total of five years after which they are expected to be self-sustainable. This is the nonprofit equivalent of venture capital, given because the proposers seem to have a good idea that needs to get off the ground and also seem to have the wherewithal to give them a shot at doing what they say. You get a limited number of years to become sustainable, after which you're done. No more grants for Steppenwolf or Lincoln Center -- they're old enough to be booted out of the house. How long can these massive organizations continue to live in the NEA's basement? Right now, in perpetuity.  Time to be grown-ups. On the other hand, when funding fledgling organizations, the investment doesn't have to be huge to make a significant impact. Just large enough to allow the theatre's staff to focus their attention full-time in bringing their theatre to a point of sustainability. If Rocco Landesman is concerned about providing theatre artists with a livable wage, then fund them when they don't need much to survive. If the theatre fails after 5 years, oh well, most small businesses fail. If the founders then create another new theatre and apply for funding, the NEA (like any good venture capitalist) would take their past track record into account.
          2. "underserved communities": to get NEA money, you have to prove that you have a specific audience in mind that isn't currently being served by other theatres. Whether these are towns or cities that don't currently have theatres or parts of communities who do have theatres but who have a group that isn't having theatre created for and about them, those who apply for funding have prove that this isn't another vanity project to get artists' careers "off the ground." This needs to be their career -- an idea to which they are deeply committed on a long-term basis. As Adam Thurman would say, this requires artists to become project-oriented, and seize control of the means of production. If you don't want to do that -- if all you want to do is act or design sound -- then you'd better find someone to team up with you who does want to do it, or else focus where there is money. Also, we need to expand the definition of "diversity" to include geographic diversity, demographic diversity, educational diversity, as well as the more well-known types of diversity. Serve everybody, not just middle-class urbanites.