Tuesday, March 03, 2009

If I Ran the NEA

Yesterday, I inveighed against the arts community for their superficial response to the LA Times' question "What would you do if you ran the NEA?" In case you haven't had an opportunity to click through the faces on the LA Times website, and running the risk of drawing Isaac's ire for "cherry picking" (apparently, to be fair, I should either quote everyone, or alternately, quote only those who say nice things), here are a few samples:

Phylicia Rashad: "I would invest the money in arts education in public schools. I would make it a priority." Really? All of it? That will make you some friends among the artists.

Neil LaBute: "If I ran the NEA, I would immediately dismantle all "artist" grants (solely because I've never been offered one myself) and use that money to create more diverse arts programs for inner-city schools. Just kidding. I'd definitely dismantle the grants because, as mentioned above, the awarding of said grants is obviously rigged and in desperate need of restructuring. I would not use the extra money in schools, however, because most kids wouldn't know "art" if it marched up and slapped them in the face. I would instead implement and fund various initiatives to examine "the sex lives of insects cited in the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare" and collect "recipe tips from noted female writers -- Aphra Behn to Naomi Wallace." Now that's money well spent on worthwhile projects -- just like my esteemed predecessors used to do." He goes on like this, obviously entertaining himself, but I don't feel the need to quote further. This confirms my opinion of Neil LaBute as a smartass cretin.

Bill Maher: "If I ran the NEA? I'd abolish it. I'd be the Gorbachev of federal arts endowing and destroy my own job as the head of it. Artists are so self-important -- art is basic to human nature, it will always be produced and does not need the government's help." He seems like such a liberal on his show, but Maher is actually a libertarian who will one day flip out just like Dennis Miller did.

Neil Patrick Harris: "So long as they keep funding public television and radio, I'm good. I grew up learning lots from "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" -- everything from the alphabet and numbers to sharing and a sense of humor, and I still listen to NPR daily. Ira Glass? "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!"? Great good times. Über-important. I can't imagine our world without them." Ahem.

Noah Wyle: "If I were NEA chief, I would hope to remember this: While the "nonprofit" arts industry enriches the cultural aspects of our society, we are not a charity. We are businesses that give fantastic return on invested dollars....I would tell everyone I meet to invest in us. We give great economic stimulus to every community where we work."
And so on. I'm sorry, but I don't find these responses thoughtful, innovative, or even mildly interesting. Here was an opportunity to discuss the impact the NEA could make on our nation, and these celebs decided to make a joke out of it. Others decided that their priority would be reinstating grants to individual artists (they need to tell Neil LaBute that there haven't been individual artist grants since the bruhaha of the 1990s, which is why he hasn't received one -- putz), asking for more money (which is not a vision for the NEA, nor even in the NEA's control, but it's like a reflex act for most artists, like the kid in D. H. Lawrence's short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner"), reinstate the WPA (it is so interesting to hear the WPA being mentioned again -- here's a challenge: the next time some artist friend of yours speaks admiringly about the WPA, ask them to name a WPA production other than Orson Welles' Harlem Macbeth, or ask them who ran the theatre wing and where she came from [hint: she was an academic, not an artist, perhaps an indication that it might be a good idea to have someone overseeing the project who had actually read a couple books]) and funding artists in schools (as long as they don't have to actually do that themselves -- those other artists, you know, the young ones who haven't made it yet, they ought to do it).

So what would I do if I ran the NEA? What if the L. A. Times had decided there might be actual thoughts from people who weren't celebrities?

First, I believe that the responsibility of the NEA should be to lead. I would be an activist NEA Chair, one who would use the alotted money to change the status quo significantly. Since my discipline is theatre, most of my ideas will be confined to this discipline. So:

1. Use 75% of the budget to fund institutions whose artistic staff has at least 50% who have their legal residence in the county where the theatre resides. It is time for the regional theatre to become truly regional.

2. Require that any institution who receives NEA funding provide ongoing educational opportunities for both young people and adults. And I'm not talking about subsidizing tickets, or doing school performances, or having backstage tours. I'm talking about the ongoing facilitations of community creativity. And not just classes -- performances, exhibits, readings, etc. All members of the artistic staff must participate -- no farming this out to the interns. And Robert Falls has to do double.

3. Reserve 90% of the budget for arts organizations in counties with populations under 500,000. This is generous to the metropolitan areas, since counties with populations under 500K represent over 96% of America. It's time to make arts funding look like America.

4. As part of the grantmaking process, require every member of an arts institution to submit a 5 - 7 page, double-spaced paper with bibliography outlining their beliefs about the arts place in American society, quoting at least five different books. We have to start somewhere. And Teresa Eyring: your paper has to be 15 - 20 pages.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Netbooks and Theatre

Over at The Artful Manager, Andrew Taylor writes about "What Can We Learn From the Netbook?" Be sure to read the article he links to as well.

I just ordered a netbook yesterday -- one with Linux, not Windows -- so this has been on my mind. Andrew quotes certain part of the article, and draws certain conclusions, but I would draw you attention to a different part. To wit:

Netbooks have ended the performance wars. It used to be that when you went to an electronics store to buy a computer, you picked the most powerful one you could afford. Because, who knew? Maybe someday you'd need to play a cutting-edge videogame or edit your masterpiece indie flick. For 15 years, the PC industry obliged our what-if paranoia by pushing performance. Intel and AMD tossed out blisteringly fast chips, hard drives went on a terabyte gallop, RAM exploded, and high-end graphics cards let you play Blu-ray movies on your sprawling 17-inch laptop screen. That dream machine could do almost anything.

But here's the catch: Most of the time, we do almost nothing. Our most common tasks—email, Web surfing, watching streamed videos—require very little processing power. Only a few people, like graphic designers and hardcore gamers, actually need heavy-duty hardware. For years now, without anyone really noticing, the PC industry has functioned like a car company selling SUVs: It pushed absurdly powerful machines because the profit margins were high, while customers lapped up the fantasy that they could go off-roading, even though they never did. So coders took advantage of that surplus power to write ever-bulkier applications and operating systems.

What netbook makers have done, in effect, is turn back the clock: Their machines perform the way laptops did four years ago. And it turns out that four years ago (more or less) is plenty.
What I learn from netbooks I learn by analogy: corporate regional institutions = SUV's and monster laptops; the theatres of the future (and of the past) = netbooks. Huge and expensive versus small and inexpensive. Providing more than is necessary versus providing what is called for.

La Times and the NEA -- Kill Me Now

Joshua Conkel drew my attention to this post on the Huffington Post by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, who apparently was asked, along with other "artists/cultural figures," by the L. A. Times "what they might do if they ran the N.E.A." The list of respondents: Bill T. Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Noah Wyle, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Frank Gehry, Tom Hayden, Tim Robbins, Tim Miller, Rachel Dratch, Neil Patrick Harris, Neil LaBute, Kurt Andersen, Kate Burton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (?), Judy Fiskin, John Patrick Shanley, John Baldessari, Joel Wachs, Joel Stein, Eve Ensler, Edward Albee, Debbie Allen, Ann Coulter (WTF?), Bill Maher (abolish it), Bill Pullman (interesting viewpoint), Harvey Weinstein, Sandra Tsing Loh, and Rachel Maddow. No doubt Teresa Eyring will chime in in American Theatre next month suggesting more money for Facebook.

If you want to understand why the artistic life of this country is so superficial and unoriginal, I invite you to read the "contributions" of these assembled mental midgets. Let me summarize the lot: 1) more money; 2) more arts in schools; 3) more money; 4) money to individuals; 5) more money; 6) the WPA lives; 7) more money.

There were a few faintly interesting and vaguely original ideas from Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, and Tim Miller. But for the most part, this should be seen as deeply embarrassing by the artistic community, who should hope that this isn't passed on to the Obama team (are you listening, oh great Obama-teamer Isaac?). Unfortunately, most of the artistic community shares this deep-as-a-kids'-plastic-pool philosophy, as any regular reading of the theatrosphere would reveal. This was an opportunity for artists to actually show themselves as worthy of funding, and instead we got Neil Patrick Harris burbling, "So long as they keep funding public television and radio, I'm good. I grew up learning lots from "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" -- everything from the alphabet and numbers to sharing and a sense of humor, and I still listen to NPR daily. Ira Glass? "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!"? Great good times. Über-important. I can't imagine our world without them." For Chrissake. "Uber-important"???

Could we get some grownups to speak, please?

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...