Sunday, June 10, 2012

You Aren't Special, or Are You? and The Kansas Reinstatement is a Victory - But Not Necessarily For Us.

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on....................."

You Are Not Special, Unless of course You Are:
A lot of media buzz this week about Boston high school teacher David McCullough Jr. who told graduates:
 "You are not special. You are not exceptional.  Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That's 37,000 valedictorians ... 37,000 class presidents ... 92,000 harmonizing altos ... 340,000 swaggering jocks ... 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs,"
You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. ... We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life is an achievement.   Do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance." 
This raises an interesting conundrum for the nonprofit arts field.  Should we say the same thing to all the new organizations (and perhaps to more than just a few of our existing organizations)?:  you are not special, not exceptional.  Merely because you want to start your own organization doesn't mean you  automatically deserve and qualify for funding; it doesn't mean what you are doing adds anything of substance to the nonprofit arts landscape.

Clearly, public and institutional (foundation / corporate) private funding is not able to support the unbridled growth in the expansion of new arts organizations.  So should we (or are we already in fact) saying to all the new organizations:  you have to survive on your own until such time as you can demonstrably establish that you are unique?  There are no resources to support you in your embryonic stage.?


Are many (if not most or all) new arts organizations in fact unique, special and exceptional despite their growing numbers?  Do they not have something of value to offer by virtue of their very existence and should we not at least give voice to nurturing and supporting their growth and encourage them to try to make it?   Are they not fulfilling Mr. McCullough's dictum of the fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life by doing what they love and what they believe in?   How many potentially great companies, troupes, performing organizations and artists might be lost if we simply say no to every new incarnation of the arts?  The challenge is that in order to pay Paul, we have to rob Peter - and it gets sticky deciding who is Peter and who is Paul.

Kansas Victory or Loss?
The reinstatement of the now reformed Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission is being heralded as a victory for the sector.  I am sure that this welcome turn of events was the result of very hard work by countless people in Kansas and they should be acknowledged for their tenacity and dedication.  Still, I cannot help but think that this is yet another pyrrhic victory at best.

Richard Kooyman in a comment posted on Ian David Moss's site Createquity (posted June 4th) more eloquently and succinctly sums up part of my thinking than could I:
"What those in the arts should take note of, and not be so giddy about, is that the Kansas Arts Council has not been reinstated but rather replaced with a more conservative name and focus. This new name, the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, reflects what is happening in many states with a quiet shifting in emphasis from “the arts” to ” arts industries”. This is a bad thing for the arts in general because it changes the focus from the intrinsic value of art to one of it being an economic stimulator. In this new focus Art only becomes valuable when it can be measured to provide jobs or stimulate the economy in some fashion. This is not a sustainable model in which real art and artistic development can move forward in."
I wonder whether or not Governor Brownback really paid any negative price for his original stance of wanting to eliminate the agency?  While I am one of Ian David Moss' biggest fans, I must respectfully disagree that the message this sends to politicians is: "you don’t want to mess with arts funding."  I suspect Brownback gained much with his core base from his arts opposition, and that his reversal now wins him friends who are arts supporters within that base and with pro arts independents.  Opposing the arts - then reversing one's position after recognizing the huge outcry against such a move is (especially for GOP candidates) often a win-win situation.  They appease the base then placate the opposition.  They look tough, then moderate.  And in the process the arts yet again spend valuable time, energy, money and soul defending their very existence and consider their survival a real victory.  Meanwhile as Richard suggested, they move the arts towards the private sector version of creativity, and valuable only as an economic stimulator. Yet it is a sort of victory for us - just a very expensive one that does nothing more than keep us a step or two back from where we started out.

I wonder what impact this might have, if any, on a Mitt Romney administration's position on arts funding?

As reported on the Hyperallergic website earlier:
"GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has penned an Op-Ed for the USA Today newspaper in which he says he would “eliminate every government program that is not absolutely essential.”
He then goes into specifics and takes aim at the battered National Endowment for the Arts:  'Enact deep reductions in the subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation.'
The Huffington Post provides some context for Romney’s proposed cuts to arts funding, and it appears he isn’t a shining example of an arts champion:
'Romney’s track record reveals many attempts to reduce cultural agency funding while governor of Massachusetts. In 2006, Romney tried to veto the creation of a Cultural Facilities Fund, which aids nonprofit arts, scientific and historical organization in construction costs. Legislature overrode the veto and $37 million has been granted by the state under the program. Although, Romney’s view remains in contrast with many of his GOP cohorts that would rather see the programs cut, but it still represents a step to the right for a man who was once known as a relatively moderate conservative.'"
So would the Kansas situation be a model for Romney to back down on this threat?  I suggest that Romney's opposition is a win-win for him too.  He appeals to the base by assuring them he will gut the left wing liberal arts funding, then holds out the olive branch to the arts supporters (many within his own party) by backtracking on the threat -- using as his excuse to his radical base for so doing that the arts do create jobs and economic activity, and that 40% goes direct to the states (a fact not lost on the GOP in each of those states).   Though - and I shudder to think it possible (and it is highly unlikely) - if elected he might make good his pledge to "enact deep reductions in the subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts" - and keep only the 40% that goes to the states and regions.  Then what folks?

The victory in these exercises is mostly for all those who engage in the hypocritical game of opposing the arts.  We claim victory because they don't kill us.  Don't mess with the arts?  Au contraire  - messing with the arts makes perfect sense.

Now I wonder if an Arts PAC had given Brownback a $50,000 campaign contribution if he would have moved to eliminate the Kansas Arts Council in the first place.  And if the Arts gave Romney and / or Obama a $100,000 contribution, would Romney not be a sudden arts supporter, and might not Obama move to substantially, and meaningfully, increase the NEA budget?  (And by the way, both of those investments would have been / would be smart and cost effective).  Cynicism on my part.  You bet, and I'm willing to bet I am right.

Alas we are likely never to know are we?

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.


  1. Well, of course you are the expert here, Barry. I admit the ending line in my post was a little flip, and probably too enthusiastic. However, I would contest the notion that Brownback gained anything from his move to cut the arts commission. I've talked to a couple of people who are familiar with the on-the-ground situation in Kansas over the past year, and what I hear from them is that the governor's action was genuinely unpopular, in a way that crossed surprisingly across political lines, driven in part by arts centers and councils having to close down in rural parts of the state where they played very meaningful roles in those communities. (I'm sure it also didn't hurt that Brownback's popularity overall was taking a dive.) Don't forget that the Kansas state legislature is dominated 3:1 by Republicans, and yet the veto was almost overridden last year. Not to mention the fact that Brownback wanted to put only $200k into the new commission, but the same legislature amended that to $700k. As one of the articles covering the story mentioned, this was probably about as good as it was going to get for Kansas this year.

    While I do see the restoration of the arts council as a victory for the arts (and even if it is now a creative industries council, so what, some portion of $700k for the arts is still better than $0 for the arts), I do agree with you that the victory should not be overstated. Antigovernment folks have shown that they can successfully cut arts councils almost to the bone with few real political consequences, as long as they don't go all the way and eliminate them. That's not good. And your worry about the NEA under Romney is well-founded, in my view.

  2. Barry, Thank you for making the point that the Kansas funding is not necessarily a win for all of us. I’ve been thinking the same thing – and worrying about the lessons people are taking from the outcome there.

    I’ve written for the createquity blog about my own doubts regarding the efficacy of large and vocal campaigns for state funding of the arts – even referencing the failure in Kansas despite a very high-profile effort in 2011. There’s no question that engaging in an effort to overturn that decision was important. And it’s much better to have had success in 2012 than another failure. Still – that win required a very heavy lift — well executed by Kansas Citizens for the Arts — to organize arts supporters and citizens.

    As Sarah Fizell, with the advocacy group Kansas Citizens for the Arts told NPR:
    "I mean, this was thousands of advocates who worked really hard over the last year and a half to explain why the arts were important in their communities, to explain what this meant in their lives. And I really believe that that voice was heard by the governor and by legislators."

    It’s certainly sometimes possible to overcome the efforts of our opponents who target arts funding as part of their larger effort to undermine the role of government. (As you point out, Barry – this is exactly what Romney is doing now.) But, it’s seriously labor intensive and asks a lot of our supporters — not an ideal way to ensure success year after year.

    One solution to this dilemma is to change the landscape of public understanding — our initiative is based on a deeper understanding of what citizens value about the arts. Instead of reviving old debates about economic impact and arts ed, we sought a new way to start the conversation – based on something we can all be for, instead of something we’re defending against an attack. And importantly, we aren’t trying to change people’s minds, but present the arts in a way that changes perspective. Therefore, we held our new message accountable to factors such as whether it prompts people to focus on certain aspects of the topic (such as broad benefits) rather than others (such as personal tastes).

    After a year of investigation and interviews with hundreds of people, our research found that public responsibility for the arts is undermined by deeply entrenched perceptions. Members of the public typically have positive feelings toward the arts, some quite strong. But how they think about the arts is shaped by a number of common default patterns that ultimately obscure a sense of shared responsibility in this area.

    For example, it is natural and common for people who are not insiders to think of the arts in terms of entertainment. In fact, it’s how we want people to think when we are selling tickets or memberships. But, in this view, entertainment is a “luxury,” and the “market” will determine which arts offerings survive. Consequently, public support for the arts makes little sense, particularly when public funds are scarce.

    Perceptions like these lead to conclusions that government funding is frivolous or inappropriate. People who target arts funding, as they did in Kansas - and as Romney is now, know that this dominant way of thinking about the arts will work in their favor. Our investigation identified a different approach, one that moves people to a new, more resonant way of thinking about the arts.

    What is it? The arts create ripple effects of benefits, such as vibrant, thriving neighborhoods where we all want to live and work. This is not only compelling, but it also sets an expectation of public responsibility for the arts. Recently, public arts funders in Connecticut, Georgia and other places have used this approach to building support for public funding. Still, we know that it will take time, repetition, and many partners across the nation to bring this way of thinking about the arts to the forefront of people’s minds. This is the effort we should engage in to build the kind of broad public support we need in the long run.

  3. I agree with both Ian and Margy, but return to my conclusion that in the short term anyway (while we engage the public over the longer term), it would cost us less money and time to make meaningful contributions to elected officials to protect our interests. Those contributions would very likely make it unnecessary to constantly defend ourselves, and, as an investment, would yield many times the money it would cost.. That's how the system works.

  4. I disagree with Barry. When dealing with normal politicians a donation may have had effect. When dealing with idealogues, like Brownback, it has no effect. It was immediately pointed out to him that his decision to eliminate the the Arts Commission was not based on rational thought, as it proved a significant net-loss financially and political loss (as he was immediately pilloried in every newspaper across the state, with opinion surveys running against him 3-1. He could have easily pivoted on the position and sustained far less political damage. Instead he stuck to his guns even when his own party's legislature turned against him. Brownback, and idealogues like him have religious zeal about their positions and feel they are waging a holy war. So there is virtually no compromising with him. It is one of the reasons he is deeply unpopular within the legislature among his own party. He is viewed as a bully, because he is so unwavering. In fact legislators (off the record), refer to being "called into the principal's office" when they don't agree with him on a bill.

    Brownback isn't going to listen to anyone with $50,000. Though if the Koch Brothers asked him to change his mind, he might. But they decided long ago that while they love the arts in NYC, they won't invest in them in their home state of Kansas.

    1. You may be right - as may Mr. Jacobs below. But I would caution that even ideologues - especially ones who get elected to high office - have a practical side and are more Machiavellian than those "true believers" who don't seek public office. As in my reply below, politics is a very complex game and as often as not things are not as they seem on the surface. Perhaps even a sizable contribution to his campaign would not have changed his mind on this, but at least it would have bought access to make a more forceful case. And in my own lifelong experience in politics, when one has that kind of access even decisions that go against you are not as easily made. $50,000 may not buy one a guarantee (there are no guarantees in politics), but it does certainly buy serious consideration and it is very serious money at any state level. Not Koch Brothers money, but not easily dismissed either. Believe me on the Kansas political landscape, $50,000 most definitely gets you listened to.

      But if big-time Koch money was behind Mr. Brownback, and the Koch Brothers absolutely insisted on defunding the arts - that might have been enough of a reason to make Mr. Brownback an ideologue.

      I cannot tell you for certain why Mr. Brownback took the stance he did. The face is we don't know for sure why this (or any) decision gets made one way or the other. it may be because one is the 'ideologue'; it may be for practical political support reasons, it may be to appeal to the base, it may be for some other reason. You play the game as well as you can. Others play too.

      Moreover, my point was that this was more the illusion of a victory, and that whatever we won (as Margy Walker said; "required a very heavy lift.")

  5. One thought for each piece of this post. What the teacher said was dumb. Of course we’re all special -- in our own way. And if one wishes to relate this topic to the nonprofit world (and I'm unconvinced that most mortals would do so), if a nonprofit turns out, in the fullness of time, to be redundant, ineffective or lacking in the "specialness" that someone at some point thought it had, then it will surely wither in its own fashion, and no self-appointed Debbie Downer teacher-killjoy is really necessary to hammer the point home.

    Second, Brownback not only gained nothing when he sprayed political DDT on KS arts funding, he gained nothing when he acceded to reviving it. In an all-GOP-all-the-time state like KS, Brownback didn’t exactly have to solidify his radical right-wing base, and anyone involved in KS arts who didn't vote for him isn't going to do it now. It was a zero-sum exercise.

  6. We are all uniquely individual, but that doesn't make us all "special" (defined in Webster's as: "distinguished by some unusual quality; being in some way superior"), and the teacher's point was that telling every child their whole lives that they are "special" (just by virtue of their "being") leads them to a false sense of entitlement based on who they believe themselves to be, rather than anything they have actually done which distinguishes them from others. Unfortunately that attitude is more pervasive than just being limited to students.

    As to Mr. Brownback, politicians have numerous reasons for taking positions - and as often as not decisions are not always entirely based on local considerations. Nor are they based exclusively on solidifying votes. Money is a factor, and for Mr. Brownback money very likely came from outside Kansas as well as from within, and what he owed to whom is mere conjecture. One always pays at least some attention to one's core base - right wing radical or liberal democratic. And playing to the base makes political sense. Brownback certainly drew nods of the head with those who believe arts funding to be a wholly inappropriate allocation of taxpayer dollars, and even when your majority is unassailable, you still have to remember who got you where you are. You cannot categorically know that he gained nothing in his arts stance. It may seem to you like a zero sum exercise, but politics is rarely so simplistic.

  7. HI Barry,
    Just for the record Republican Administrations in Washington have never made economic arguments for funding the arts. The economic arguments of creative industries, etc. have been the work of Washington arts lobbyists and the Obama Administration. Unfortunately, in the process of selling "arts funding" they forgot why the arts should be funded.

    Perhaps many don't know to the extent arguments of intrinsic benefits of the arts have been successful in winning over conservatives and Republicans. NEA Chairman Dana Gioia and his team used the intrinsic arguments in growing NEA's budget ($105 million to $155 million)over 8 years of President George W. Bush.

    With a broad and deep knowledge of the arts and as an artist himself, Gioia engaged in conversations with practically every Member of Congress. Republican and conservatives responded positively to being intellectually engaged personally and seeing first hand how NEA's programs served their constituents. Even though he had an MBA, Gioia never used economic arguments.

    Gioia's conversations continue to resonate with those legislators still in Congress. House Republican appropriators successfully pushed back against "Our Town" and the economic arguments presented by Landesman. ("Our Town" was saved by Democrats in Senate.) House Republicans insisted on the continuation of NEA programs that celebrate the arts -- Jazz, Shakespearean plays, Big Read and Poetry OutLoud and the Jazz Masters and Heritage Fellows honorifics --that Preaident Obama asked Congress to eliminate or defund.

    After several years of asking Congress to cut NEA, Obama's FY 2013 budget request is for $154 million -- pretty close to what it was four years ago when President George W. Bush left office ($155 million) and much less than when Bush #41 left office ($175 million in 1993).

    Governor Romney was an English literature major in college and is said to paint in watercolors. His mother was an Metro Goldwyn Mayer actress. His sister serves on arts boards. It is anyone's guess what NEA will look like in his Administration. Don't assume he'll buy only economic arguments.

    Arts Politico