Sunday, November 23, 2008

November 23, 2008

What We Need in the New NEA Chair

Hello everybody.

"And the beat goes on..........................."

A couple of weeks ago I suggested people write to the Obama transition team to put forward candidates for the NEA Chair appointment. Cynic that I am, I doubt many people took the time to do that. I understand, no time, no interest.

Still, given President-elect Obama's seeming commitment to the arts, his "big picture" approach to governing, the serious economic and other challenges we face right now, I continue to believe that this is a critically important appointment for our community AND that we should take an active role in lobbying for the kind of candidate we want.

What then should we look for in the new Chair of the NEA?

Here are the criteria I think are important:

1. Powerful Leadership & Vision:
I would like to see in the new Chair, someone who is a respected, dynamic leader within our sector. I want someone with a really good analytical mind, and someone with real vision for what we need, where we might go, and how and why the arts are worth the investment. I prefer someone who knows politics and can continue the successes in increased funding made under Bill Ivey and Dana Gioia. I want a savvy politician and advocate, but more than anything, I want somebody who thinks big and has the confidence to lead us to bigger things.

I don't want ten, twenty or even thirty million dollar increases, I want a $150 million increase -- in 2009 or 2010 at the latest. Yes, even in these tough times. If we are going to invest in the future of this country, we have to make sure that investment includes the arts. I agree a healthy banking system is critical to the country's future, and perhaps a healthy automobile industy too. But I think we all agree a healthy arts, culture and creativity sector is likewise critical. There are small, mid-sized and even large cultural organizations in dire situations right now, many cutting staff or scaling back programming or services, and some even going under and over the next year it will get worse. If the banking system is worth a $750 billion rescue investment, then arts & creativity seem to me to be worth the equivalent of one-fifth ........of one-tenth ......of one percent of that $750 billion - or $150 million. If we don't understand that as a country we are in more trouble than people think. I want a Chair at the NEA that will help the country see that.

So I want a bold leader -- someone who can think in large and strategic "policy" terms, and galvanize us into action. I want someone who will take risks and represent our real needs, as well as our lofty aspirations. I want someone to push for real "change".

2. Diversity:
It's been twelve or more years since a woman led the Endowment, and we've never had a person of color at the helm. We are a field heavily led by smart, experienced, savvy women and people of color. I think we need to be part of this historic Obama move to expand who sits at the head of the table. It is time for real diversity to come to the NEA Chair. I would love to see a dynamic woman of color considered.

3. Experience:
I would like to see someone as Chair who is familiar with our issues; preferably someone from our sector with front-line, nonprofit arts experience, and particularly in the grants making area. I want someone who knows what money is needed for, what it can do to make systemic changes in our arts organizations' capacity, long term stability, and how we can futher embed arts & culture into every community across the country. I think this is a good time to re-think the entire NEA structure and strategic approach -- not necessarily to make wholesale changes, but to at least take a long look at what works and what doesn't.

I want a Chair who knows arts organizations from the inside out.

All of us are really working to support the creation of art, and therefore artists, so I understand and appreciate those who support the installation of a working, professional artist perspective at the NEA, but NEA funding is largely about supporting arts organizations so they can support artists, and about supporting public access to the arts, so I prefer a nonprofit arts organization perspective.

4. Community Understanding:
40% of the NEA budget (I think it's still 40%)goes directly to state arts organizations, so I want a Chair who understands arts organization needs and functioning from the community level. I think we need to move away from big, national programs that promote this or that single arts experience (not that I am in any way opposed to these initiatives or those experiences - I just think we need to redirect our priorities), and move towards an appreciation that we are 50 states, hundreds of cities and thousands of communities -- all at different places at the moment, with different challenges and needs, operating in differing sets of circumstances, and I would like to see someone who, at least, intuitively understands and appreciates that 'cookie-cutter' approaches may not be the best way to go right now. I would like to see a Chair who can relate to rural areas as well as big cities, someone who sees the needs and values of small arts organizations as well as the major cultural institutions (note I said "as well", because I would like to see a "big tent" approach - excluding no one, but continuing to be more balanced.)

I woud like to see the NEA have, if not a physical branch office, at least a locally based point person in the South, the Mid-West and the West on a full time basis. Move Washington out into the country at least in part so it can begin to understand what is going on outside of the "inside the beltway" thinking.

5. Arts Education Knowledge:
As Arts Education is a big part of Obama's Cultural Platform, and the one area of what we do that resonates with elected leaders and the public alike, I would like to have a Chair with direct, personal arts education experience, particularly on the front lines of fighting for more in our schools. I would hope for a new Chair who could unite the Arts Education and the Performing Arts Organization sectors into a single, cohesive, unified force -- and let's face it, despite all of our collaboration and cooperation, we are still two distinct segments of one sector, sometimes even at odds and competition with each other (to our disadvantage I think). I want a uniter in the post.

Of course, everybody wants someone who is charismatic and inspires confidence, who is gregarious, open to ideas -- a facilitator & collaborator by nature -- as their leader. But for me, the above criteria are the big ones. Now I know it is unlikely we will find the best candidate in each area all rolled into one single person, but I hope Bill Ivey and whomever else is advising the Obama Administration on this appointment will focus on those criteria.

I was on last week's Americans for the Arts Webinar on the election results (my second webinar in two weeks, and two months ago I wouldn't have been exactly sure what a webinar was. It is basically an online gathering of people, with the audio part run via an 800 call in number so everyone can hear the presentation, and see data onscreen at the same time. A highly cost effective tool to present information to the maximum number of people. Someday the sound will be on the computer itself, and they will probably have little "live" thumb-nail photos of everybody on the call and it will be truly interactive. Ah, technology.)

150 or so people were on this webinar, but the number was doubtless much higher because a lot of organizations around the country held local meetings tapped into the presentation thus making the total number of people involved probably well over 1000 or more (I'm guessing). It lasted over an hour, but was very well organized, and while I follow this political stuff pretty closely, there was a wealth of information presented that I found highly informative (local ballot results around the country, analysis of the new Congressional make-up - in terms of arts support, strategy considerations). I also learned that the White House under Obama might consider an appointment of someone as a cultural policy advisor within it's ranks (could deal with NEA, NEH, Smithsonian, Museum / Library Services, international issues, the entertainment industry, and copyright / intellectual property, etc.) This last one will apparently, in compliance with a Congressional Bill already passed, become a reality next year -- a separate Copyright Czar who will deal with intellectual property rights on a broad scale.)

All of this may be the precursor to someday having a Cabinet Level Secretary to oversee and advocate for arts, cultural and creativity affairs and wouldn't that be a spectacular development. And why not - numerous countries around the world have had a Ministry of Culture for years.

Anyway kudos and congratulations to Americans for the Arts (Bob, Nina and everyone else involved) for ceaselessly and tirelessly pushing these and other proposals to advance our political clout. If you are not now a member of the AFTA Action Fund - why don't you join today? Surely you can skip lunch and afford a $20 donation? Click here: then click on "become a member".

And please THINK about what the crieria should be for(and who you would like to see appointed as) Chair of the NEA - then DO SOMETHING about it.

Next month I will give you five names of people I would like to see considered for the post. Hopefully you might agree with some, or have others of your own to push.

Last Friday I attended a Retirement Lunch for a good friend and colleague - Jeanne Bogardus, Executive Director of the Marin Arts Council for the past 18 years. A more passionate, dedicated, hard working arts professional could not be found. And she was a trusted advisor and friend. We will miss you Jeanne.

She had a quote on the lunch program from George Bernard Shaw with which I wasn't familiar. I share it with you:

"I believe in Michelangelo, Velazquez, and Rembrandt;
In the might of design, the mystery of colour,
In the redemption of all things by beauty everlasting,
And the message of Art that has made this life blessed:
Amen, Amen"

I can only add one more "Amen".


And, whatever you do, think of George Bernard Shaw and DON'T QUIT!