Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On "Excellence"

Let's start with the legislation that brought the NEA into existence, which I mentioned at the end of my previous post -- that the NEA should dedicate itself  "to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education." Notice that this is similar to a three-legged chair: excellence is one leg, wide distribution is the second, and arts education the third. There is no indication in the legislation that one is more important than the other. Indeed, according the the NEA's own National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965 - 2008, "The Arts Endowment’s mission was clear—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." (italics mine)

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:
  • 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.
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."

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 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 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.


jenidog said...

Thank you, thank you for this amazing post, Scott. Of course you know I’m with you 100% on this. I’m really annoyed – though not at all surprised - to hear the break down on the “Our Town” grants.

It used to be that the NEA came out to see supported work every three years. Expensive, yes, but I think that the further they get from the work they support, the easier it is to continue to support things that speak to that easy definition of excellence that neglects geographic diversity (and in fact seems to assume that things like scale and geographic location signal a certain lack of artistry).

Your post also brings to mind part of the interaction I had with Rocco Landesman at Arena in February. In his speech, he commented that there were too many administrators in theater, yet when I took him to task for defunding rural theaters he told me that smaller, more rural theaters had to work harder to get the NEA’s attention. When I pointed out that in order to do that I’d have to hire an administrator he just seemed stumped and mumbled something about the fact that they could do better too. But he didn’t really respond to the contradiction between what he says he wants and what the NEA does. Their current policies seem to be filled with a number of striking and really basic contradictions: the policy of not funding more than 50% of a project on one hand, and then not wanting to give smaller grants on the other. Sure the intention isn’t to squeeze out rural companies but that is what it will do. The logic that bigger grants will have bigger impact may work in bigger cities, but ten grand in New York is different from ten grand Idaho or Texas or any number of places. So even beyond the definition of “excellence” it is a system that is geared toward large markets, large budgets and large administrative staffs: institutions.

You mention in your post that people in Peoria might have to drive a day to see theater, but in the entire Pacific Northwest there were so few grants in the “excellence” category that many would have to drive two full days to see NEA funds at work! Ultimately this kind of thing threatens the very existence of the NEA – because if people outside of the big urban areas don’t see the NEA as something that serves them, then they will be glad to see it go and I can’t blame them. We should all be not more than a day-trip away from some great art of some kind.

Scott Walters said...

jenidog -- A question for you: do you think an on-line workshop that would help an arts org through the federal grant process would be valuable?

jenidog said...

Hmmmm. Interesting thought.

The instructions on the site itself are actually pretty good in terms of laying out the steps in the process, but it might be interesting to ask folks what stops them from applying, or what they think are the hurdles they need help with.

The three things that I think are most challenging are –

1) It just looks like it’s going to be impossible and overwhelming when you go to the site (and everyone tells you that it is). You have to start weeks in advance - and thanks to the new online submission format - you have to verify your organization and its eligibility on a number of sites (all of which seem to be constantly insisting that you change your password). I don’t think people realize that most of that paperwork is actually not that difficult (it’s just tedious) – it’s mostly for vendors that are not arts organizations.
2) The things that tend to trip people up are moments in which you really need a live person to talk you though what’s happening. Either you’re sure you’ve entered the right password in the right place and still nothing happens, or a site that should let you in doesn’t. Times when I’ve called the help lines, they’ve actually been helpful – and I think that would surprise a lot of folks.
3) I think it’s challenging to figure out how to tell the story of your organization in way that is authentic to what you’re trying to do while also making sure that the committee can clearly see that you’re addressing their needs (and not just using a bunch of lingo to make it sound like you are). I think there is probably some good online advice one could offer in this area –it’s less instructional in terms of navigating the system per se, and more about how to think and write about your project without losing your soul.

But even with all that – as I understand, the score that your project is given is not necessarily the final word because committee members are able to lobby for projects – which on one hand makes total sense. No one wants it to be all about scores and numbers – that really won’t make it more “fair” – at some level all these judgments are subjective. But that makes it even tougher for a smaller, less known organization to rise to the top.

Which brings us back to your initial point: the legs of the stool are not balanced. In fact, the current policies (including awarding fewer larger grants) not only don’t help rectify the situation, if anything they tilt the legs even further in the direction of the larger institutions and urban areas.

Of course, it may be that the NEA needs to get more and more and more applications from the smaller, rural organizations? Maybe that would help. Maybe knowing that we’ve asked for funds and been denied would help us to be able to say to our communities that they need to demand more from the NEA. Maybe they need to hear us roar.

I think an online workshop might help some – but my sense is people need help in specific moments of the process and maybe a site that connected you with people who could help – or that offered forums where people could ask questions might be more helpful. And then we all have also be advocates for each other (rather than competitors) in making the NEA aware of the fact that we see what is happening and it don’t accept it as reasonable.

Long answer. Sorry.

Andrew Gorell said...

In this post, I was most interesting in your point that "excellence" is never defined in the NEA materials. I would like to consider that point further. It seems obvious that "excellence" cannot be defined due to its subjective nature. What is excellent today would have been absurd fifty years ago and vice versa. It is the kind of nebulous definition that allows administrators to support whatever their bias leads them to.

How many times have you heard an audience member describe what you subjectively believe to be a terrible performance as "excellent." Are they wrong? It seems entirely relative to the observer's point of view.

This having been said, I acted in a touring production that went to Peoria ... and it was anything but "excellent." We were New York actors, poorly trained, under-rehearsed and over-worked. We did a disservice to Peoria by bringing in less than excellent work. We were just happy to be "professional" actors ... not realizing that we were being exploited by our willingness to put in long hours and accept poor working conditions.

So, who are the curators that will keep bad touring companies out of Peoria so that excellence can truly take root? I think that your ideas on decentralization are key to this. I see training amongst my peers to be so diverse and exciting, from Le Coq trained artists to those steeped in the American Method. We need a diversity of excellence and we need it everywhere.

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 ...