Friday, May 20, 2011

Thoughts on the NEA Grants: An Analogy

I regularly teach a course on the history of the Harlem Renaissance, and early in that course we read an essay by Beverly Tatum that comes from her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. In it she offers a few definitions that are useful in exploring the issues raised by the Harlem Renaissance, and that I think, by analogy, might be useful in discussing the issues raised by the way the arts are situated in the US.

Prejudice is defined by Tatum as "a preconceived judgment or opinion..." Prejudice happens interpersonally -- it is a specific attitude held by an individual.

Racism is defined by Tatum, following the idea of David Wellman, as a "system of advantage based on race." Tatum elaborates, "This definition of racism is useful because it allows us to see that racism, like other forms of oppression, is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and factions of individuals." [italics mine]

Cultural racism, which supports the system of racism, is "the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color..."

To be privileged is to benefit from a racist system, even if you personally are not prejudiced yourself. "In very concrete terms," Tatum writes, "it means that if a person of color is the victim of housing discrimination, the apartment that would otherwise have been rented to that person of color is still available for a White person. The White tenant is, knowingly or unknowingly, the beneficiary of racism, a system of advantage based on race. The unsuspecting tenant is not to blame for the prior discrimination, but she benefits from it anyway."

I believe Tatum provides a useful way of speaking about issues surrounding the inequities we see in the geographical distribution of arts organizations and by extension, arts funding (e.g., the NEA grants analyzed in previous posts). What we have in the arts world (and, I would argue, the US culture in general) is "ruralism," a system of advantage based on location and population density, a "system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and factions of individuals."

When we discuss white privilege in my Harlem Renaissance course, it raises peoples' hackles. They don't feel privileged. Many of them are barely scraping by economically, struggling to get an education while supporting a family and working two jobs, and so to suggest that they are somehow privileged offends them. But Louis CK does a great job using humor to make the point:

Similarly, artists in one of the states or cities who are getting a larger share of the NEA pie don't feel privileged. I mean, let's be honest, we're talking about grants that are mostly in the $10,000 - $20,000 range, not multi-million dollar no-bid contracts to Haliburton. It's almost absurd to be talking about privilege when it comes to the arts -- it's like two homeless people arguing over who has the heavier blanket. But that said, there are 17 states who don't even have a blanket. So yes, NYLACHI, you are privileged, and as Louis CK says above, to deny it makes you, well, an asshole. The system makes it easier for you to be an artist if you live in New York -- there's just no way to deny it. It doesn't make it easy to be an artist, because being an artist anywhere in this damn country is hard as hell; it makes it easier.

Tatum then goes on to define three approaches to living in a racist society. You can engage in active racism, "blatant, intentional acts of racial bigotry and discrimination." Say, refusing to hire black people where you work. You can engage in passive racism, "the collusion of laugh­ing when a racist joke is told, of letting exclusionary hiring practices go unchallenged, of accepting as appropriate the omissions of people of color from the curriculum, and of avoiding difficult race-related issues." Or you can be actively anti-racist, working against the racist system. Tatum provides a wonderful analogy for this:

I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behav­ior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is mov­ing with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively antiracist—they will find themselves carried along with the others.
The same is true with ruralism. You may have no strong prejudices about people in rural areas whatsoever, but when you accept an unfair system of advantage as being "just the way it is," or when you try to find reasons why the inequities in the system don't really exist or are somehow justified,, you are a passive ruralist. When you say things like, "Well, rural people are just too stupid/conservative/uneducated to appreciate the arts," you are an active ruralist.

I am reminded of Spike Lee's film, Bamboozled, which we watch near the end of my Harlem Renaissance class. In the scene where Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayons) has his first meeting with the all-white writing staff for his new African-American minstrel TV show, he expresses his preference that he would have had at least some black writers included in the mix. The white writers, feeling defensive, conjecture about the lack of African-American presence. "Maybe they couldn't find any people with experience," one says. "Or they wouldn't work for the pay," offers another. "...or they refused to work on the show." To which Pierre acidly adds, "Or maybe they couldn't put their crack pipes down long enough to apply."

I would suggest that the rationalization of the privilege that results from the centralization of the American theatre is similar to that exchange. And again, I would suggest that not only the NEA but all foundations funding the arts and all the regional theatres across America, should actively seek out rural artists, actively and intentionally support rural artists, and become active anti-ruralists. Only then will we even begin to have a truly national arts scene.

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.

Crunching Numbers: NEA Grants (Part 2)

Number of grants per state

NY 39
CA 32
IL 10
MN 7
PA 6
TX 5
GA 4
MA 4
DC 3
KY 3
MO 3
TN 3
VT 3
AZ 2
CT 2
FL 2
ME 2
MD 2
MI 2
MT 2
NM 2
NC 2
OH 2
OR 2
VA 2
WA 2
AR 1
CO 1
ID 1
IN 1
KS 1
LA 1
OK 1
WI 1
AL 0
AK 0
DE 0
HI 0
IO 0
MS 0
NE 0
NV 0
NH 0
NJ 0
ND 0
RI 0
SC 0
SD 0
UT 0
WV 0
WY 0

17 (34%) states got no NEA theatre grants at all

  • This represents 34 (34%) votes in the Senate and 56 (15%) votes in the House

8 (16%) states got one NEA theatre grant

  • This represents 16 (16%) votes in the Senate and 46 (10.5%) votes in the House

12 (24%) got two NEA theatre grants

  • This represents 24 (24%) votes in the Senate and 115 (26.4%) votes in the House
3 (6%) states got 10 or more NEA theatre grants

  • This represents 6 (6%) votes in the Senate and 111 (25.5%) votes in the House
Comparison of grant money distribution

Top 10% (CA, NY, IL, MN, PA) = $2,319,000 (53% of distributed grant money)

  • By comparison, in the United States the top 10% of the population owns 71% of the wealth

Bottom 50%: (AL, AK, AR, CO, DE, HI, ID, IN, IO, KS, LA, MS, NE, NV, NH, NJ, ND, OK, RI, SC, SD, UT, WV, WI, WY): $270,000 (6% of distributed grant money)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Crunching Numbers: NEA Awards

So the NEA just announced a new round of grants, and Stage Directions published it. Let's take a look at the "Access to Excellence" category for Theatre (not including Musical Theatre, which is its own category). Since this category is about "access," I have crunched the numbers to look a geographical distribution, which might have an influence on access. If I get a chance, I'll crunch the numbers according to population tomorrow. (This has not been done very quickly, and has not been proofread.)

A total of $4,368,000 was awarded spread over 156 grants, which has an average of $28,000 per grant. Nice. How does it break down?

The cities of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles (NYLACHI)
Percentage of US population: 13.6%
Number of grants: 54 (34.6%)
Total amount granted: $1,966,000 (45%)
Average grant amount: $36,407 (130% of overall average)
Median grant amount: $25,500

Everyone else
Percentage of US population: 86.4%
Number of grants: 102 (65.4%)
Total amount granted: $2,402,000 (55%)
Average grant amount: $23,780 (85% of overall average)
Median grant amount: $20,000

By State
New York, Illinois, California
Percentage of US population: 22.5%
Number of grants: 79 (51%)
Total amount granted: $2,473,000 (55.6%)
Average grant amount: $30,900 (110% of overall average)
Median grant amount: $20,000

Other 47 States:
 Percentage of US population: 77.5%
Number of grants: 77 (49%)
Total amount granted: $1,975,000 (44.4%)
Average amount granted: $25,300 (90.3% of overall average)
Median grant amount: $20,000

Sunday, May 15, 2011

On #1 and #3

On Twitter, a few people have responded positively to my previous post, "Educating Artists." Mostly, they agree with #2 and #4: "Entrepreneurial Skills" and "Community Organizational Skills." And those are extremely important, and largely missing from our current arts education curricula, which tends to focus on the self, and mostly on the self as an employee -- someone who is selling their labor (talent) in the marketplace.

And while I am delighted that somebody finds something of value in what I have written, I feel that I must assert the primacy of #1 and #3: "Philosophy" and "Facilitation Skills." Why? Because without these two elements, the curriculum is simply developing more artists to fit into the status quo, and I have no interest at all in the status quo. Which is why #1 is #1.

We've lost track of the real why of the arts. Like everything else in this materialistic merchant economy, we've turned them into commodities, something that is sold and consumed. Unless we're filling out a grant application, we talk more about "butts in seats" than we do about what we contribute to making human existence richer, human understanding deeper, human community stronger.

For this curriculum to have any value at all, the "why" of the arts has to be front and center, and ultimately  it can't be focused on money. Money is a side effect, it is what happens if you are doing something that is valued. It isn't something that is a target, a goal. It's use reflects the values upon which your art is founded. Money is a tool to accomplish something more important. And the use of money is about stewardship and philosophy. The balance sheet should be a mirror that reflects the soul of your organization. Someone should be able to look at your annual balance sheet -- the individual items that you spent your money on -- and understand your values plain and clear. But the balance sheet can't drive the art. To borrow the title of Zora Neale Hurston's novel, your eyes should be watching God. And #1, the "why," the philosophy, is where students learn to recognize and define their god.

Number 3, "facilitation skills," is equally crucial, because it reintegrates the artist into the community. Not only aren't they selling a commodity, but they are helping other people to be artistically self-sufficient. They are giving a gift -- they are gifting the community. Ultimately, #3 puts the artist out of business, or rather shifts the focus of their business in another direction: serving as an aspirational focus. The artist exists to illustrate what is possible, but is not the only thing that is possible.

Numbers 2 and 4 are practical and pragmatic, and as such they deserve strong representation in the curriculum. They represent the "how" that is necessary to make the "why" possible and sustainable. They empower the artist, restoring the control of their creativity to themselves, so that they are no longer groveling employees begging, as in A Chorus Line, "I need this job, oh God, I need this show." (It ought to give theatre people pause to note that, at the end of A Chorus Line, the reward for having survived the audition process and successfully gotten the begged-for job is to dance in lockstep wearing identical tasteless gold lame costumes and singing a song with some of the worst lyrics in history. To quote Peggy Lee, "is that all there is?") But without a purpose, the outcome is empty professionalism, butts in seats.

This curriculum exists to start a revolution.