Monday, September 14, 2009

September 14, 2009



Hello everyone.

“And the beat goes on..........”


Today we launch this ambitious six week national dialogue on the National Endowment for the Arts, and indirectly, on a national arts & culture policy. Scroll down to the last two blog entries for a complete description of this project, all the participants, and some of topics and subject areas that we hope will be covered.

I am pleased to introduce our First Panel – all of whom have some direct previous experience working at the Endowment or the National Committee on the Arts – which oversees the Endowment and approves its grantmaking activities.

OLIVE MOSIER – Director, Arts & Culture Program, William Penn Foundation; former Deputy Director NEA.
DIANE MATARAZA – Independent Consultant; former Director Local Partnership, NEA
TONY CHAUVEAUX – Deputy Director the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; former Deputy Director, NEA
PETER HERO – Vice-President, California Institute of Technology, former member National Council on the Arts, former Executive Director Silicon Valley Foundation
STEVEN J. TEPPER – Associate Director Curb Center for Art, Enterprise & Public Policy, Vanderbilt University

Thank you all very much for participating.

Let’s get started. I’d like to first set some context for this whole six week project by asking each of you to share some insights on the how the Endowment works and the ecosystem in which it operates.

BARRY: Describe the culture of the NEA as it relates to how the decision making process works at the agency. How are priorities determined? What factors affect its policy formulation: The relationship to Congress? To the White House? To its constituents?

TONY CHAUVEAUX: How are priorities determined? During my service at the NEA, priority was given to serving all Americans and bringing to them excellence in the arts. These priorities resulted in highly visible, artistically excellent programs such as “American Masterpieces”, “Shakespeare in American Communities”, “The Big Read”, “Poetry Out Loud”, “Operation Homecoming”, “Great American Voices”, etc.

During my service at the Arts Endowment, I would suggest the agency’s highest priority was serving its constituents. The agency’s constituents were seen as the American people. The agency sought to serve this constituency by joining with and funding our partners – arts organizations throughout the country – to bring the best of the American arts to every community. As a result, a series of programs were created and launched – all designed to be highly visible and of indisputable quality reaching into every corner of the nation. Chairman Gioia was able to walk into any member of Congress’ office and, in response to the anticipated “What have you done for me lately?” question, demonstrate specific NEA funding which had been awarded to cultural organizations in that member’s district. These initiatives resonated with Congress and for the first time since the agency was in jeopardy of being eliminated in the 1990’s, the NEA appropriations were routinely passed by voice vote in both houses of Congress with no debate.

OLIVE MOSIER: The priorities of the NEA are influenced not only by the sensibility of the NEA staff leadership but by the National Council on the Arts (NCA), the White House, and Congress. The NEA needs to factor in all of these perspectives as it shapes its agenda for the next four (and hopefully eight) years under the Obama Administration. All of us who have come into the agency under a new Administration look to put a new stamp on the place that is reflective of larger goals and policies of the country’s leadership. Nonetheless, the agency shouldn’t change simply for the sake of change but because it feels there are more effective approaches to doing its business in service to the field. The NEA, like every other funder, cannot fund every organization worthy of support. Like every other arts service organization, the NEA can’t address all obstacles facing the field. It needs to determine how it makes the most significant impact given its resources, but in a way that reflects the goals of the Administration and supported by Congress. The political atmosphere in Washington seems highly charged. Even a strong arts advocate in the White House cannot necessarily help the NEA overcome resistance by Congress. However, I have no doubt that the new leadership at the NEA will find an effective, principled agenda in service to the field

PETER HERO: I am not close enough to the NEA anymore to answer this effectively.
I do know this: its priorities should be set by those professionals in the field who have the most experience/knowledge of theatre, visual art, dance, etc. Their recommendations should go to a knowledgeable NCA which must balance and prioritize. That body should give extra consideration to projects which support and celebrate our artists; it is not enough to send Shakespeare productions around the USA, even to every district, let the Humanities Endowment do that. James Thurber once wrote, “In the house of life American artists feel as if they have never been asked to take off their overcoats”.

Recognizing and celebrating individual artists in their lifetimes was always a key objective of starting the NEA in the first place, and if you do not believe that then go back and read Congressional testimony from the mid-late 60’s… The NEA’s greatest supporters, by far, were conservative politicians who argued (vs. Soviet style official art) that Americans encouraged free speech/art (hence no content judgments were to be made by NEA panels… only quality) and that Americans welcomed and celebrated diverse independent artists in their midst. What happened to all that??!.

I know, soon as the Wall came down in 1989 right wing politicians had to find new “devils” to blame for our ills, the Russians, now de-clawed, and some of those politicians settled on artists, gays, minorities to blame. But, look, for how long do we let Jesse Helm’s cold dead hand forever hold the NEA in its grip, terrified of recognizing the real creative spirits among us?


: The broad question for this first panel is “what can and should the NEA do?” Like many conditional statements, the “should” might not, in fact, follow easily from the “can.” Not unlike the majority of government agencies, the Endowment is beholden to its past and its current stakeholders. The NEA did not emerge in the 1960s from a coherent vision for the arts in America. It was built upon the intuition that America faced a deficit of fine arts in this country and that increasing the supply of fine arts would bring a set of worthy, yet somewhat vague, public benefits -- enlightened citizenry, soaring spirits, shared heritage. As the Agency evolved, its role and relevance was shaped by political expedience and pressure. First, it became a handmaiden of Cold War politics – serving American interests by showcasing the freedom and creativity of our citizens and artists. Then, the NEA saw its program areas expand under pressure to be more inclusive and to embrace the spirit of the Civil Rights (expansion arts, jazz program, folk program). Finally, as the Cold War receded and Congressional pressure increased, the Endowment moved toward spreading and diffusing the fine arts to small and mid sized cities and communities across the nation. Through matching grants to nonprofits, the Endowment embarked on closing the “fine arts divide” between the big cities and the rest of America.

Throughout this evolution, Endowment budgets increased and the Agency was able to innovate around the margins to be more inclusive and to expand its geographic reach. But, throughout, as the nonprofit arts grew and as the major arts institutions in America gained prominence and standing, the Endowment faced an increasingly organized “special interest” constituency that sought to maintain or expand current funding levels. Many of the national arts service organizations exist, in part, to ensure that their disciplines and their members (nonprofit arts organizations) are “at the table” and can exert pressure on the Endowment to continue to fund their programs and organizations at adequate levels. While the Endowment continues to experiment and innovate around the margins, and while its peer-review panel system is a notable model of efficiency, excellence and effectiveness, in public policy speak, the NEA is very much “captured” by its primary stakeholders.

So, what the NEA “can” do is obviously limited by political realities. But what the Endowment “should” do is another matter altogether. As a federal agency, the Endowment must establish policies and programs and set priorities based on the “public interest.” How is the public interest advanced by grants to the nonprofit arts in America? If I were a congressman voting on re-authorization for the Agency, this is the primary question I would seek an answer to. And, it is not enough to show that grants to excellent nonprofit fine arts organizations produce benefits for many people. And, it is not enough to show that these organizations pay taxes or bring in revenue through tourism. It is not enough to show multiplier effects for every dollar invested in the arts. Every government program benefits somebody. Instead, the NEA must show that by spending its money this way and not that way (grants to nonprofit organizations verses funding arts in the schools) it maximizes the public interest in art and culture in America. We have never had a sustained conversation in this country about the “public interest” in art and culture. We have never attempted to come to some consensus about what “cultural vitality” would look like and how it might be achieved. Instead, we have simply defaulted to instinct, anecdote, preference, and generalities about the glory of the arts and the importance of growing the nonprofit arts in this country. Can the National Council for the Arts serve more like the Council of Economic Advisers? Can it take up real policy issues and examine cultural regulation and grant making in the context of the public interest?

BARRY: What about the Endowment is undervalued, underutilized, under developed and what misconceptions does the arts sector have about the Endowment? What are the best programs and initiatives of the Endowment in your opinion? What are the principal barriers and obstacles to the Endowment changing direction, to expansion, to its success? --- Is it politics? The legacy of doing things a certain way? A lack of consensus among its constituent / client base?

OLIVE: When I was at the NEA, the work of the Research Division was often perceived as taking funding from the grantmaking programs, despite the fact that the budget for the Research Division comes from a different source within the NEA’s appropriation. I believe that there is now broad recognition of the need for reliable information, research, and data about the nonprofit arts sector. Despite the valuable work of NEA’s Research Division, this has historically been an underfunded program of which much was expected. But good research costs money, and I hope the new administration at the NEA is able to make this work a priority.

TONY: The quality and dedication of the NEA staff are, without a doubt, the most undervalued and unrecognized assets of the Arts Endowment. Additionally, at a critical time in its short history, I believe Bill Ivey and Dana Gioia were absolutely the right leaders at the right time to save the agency from the threat of elimination and then begin to build the agency back up -- Chairman Ivey in his quiet deliberative manner of spending endless hours on Capitol Hill convincing members of Congress to save the agency and then Chairman Gioia’s highly visible programs of excellence which reached literally into every Congressional District in the nation. I believe the biggest misconception that the arts sector has about the Endowment is that it is an agency decision that individual artists should receive no funding. Congress mandated that, with the exception of the honorary awards such as the National Heritage Awards, Jazz Masters, and the NEA Opera Honors, the NEA not award grants to individual artists.

Many may disagree, but I am convinced that placing a direct NEA grant in every Congressional District is critical, particularly now, to the continued success of the agency. In 2000, over ¼ of the nation’s 435 Congressional Districts received no direct funding from the NEA. How could the National Endowment for the Arts be truly “national” if over 60 million Americans received no benefit from our nation’s cultural agency? Clearly this move was the political savvy thing to do, but it was also the right thing to do if the agency was to serve its constituency. Likewise, the aforementioned series of national initiatives demonstrated the agency’s commitment to artistic excellence and delivered that programming throughout the nation.

Politics, without a doubt, is the agency’s principle barrier. Members of Congress, regardless of their political leanings, are being backed against the wall over the major principal issues of the day and, like it or not, their support for or against the National Endowment for the Arts is not high the agenda. Topping each member’s list is re-election. With the economy at the center of every issue, the appropriate use of taxpayer dollars will be scrutinized and if there exists even the slightest suggestion of a misuse of public funds, it will be fully aired. I dare say that no member of Congress is willing to risk re-election if it means defending the ultimate destination of a $10,000 NEA grant. There remains a vocal base out there that does not see the benefit of public funding of the arts. When a national cable news network reports that NEA stimulus funding went to support “pervert revues and underground pornography” or audio tapes surface suggesting the questionable use of the arts community as a “tool of the state” not only does the NEA suffer but all cultural organizations in our nation suffer and in turn, the American people may be deprived of the fulfillment and joy that the arts can bring into every life.

PETER: The NEA is under-appreciated and always has been. It can exert influence beyond its peanut budget and yet it refuses to do so. For example it can be an advocate for the arts, and for artists. It should focus on CREATIVITY, the currency of the 21st Century, as a the rationale for supporting the arts, not on art’s supposed economic impact (mostly bogus numbers anyway in my opinion, even crime is good for the economy), or art for therapy, or art for the homeless, or art for anything else. Get over it.

The NEA should take a leadership role to show that the link between science and the arts is creativity, that both artists and scientists teach us to see the world in new ways. Ask any Silicon Valley entrepreneur what is America’s key leg up on the flood of Asian `engineers/scientists competing with us, and they will all tell you it is American creativity, imagination, the capacity to be driven not by what someone else shows you how to do but by “what if….”.

And, with this approach the NEA could answer the critics, energize the field to support it, and provide a solid rationale for why a nation would devote resources to encouraging the creativity of its citizens as a public good and cultural necessity.

BARRY: What opportunities has the Endowment failed to capitalize on?

TONY: Since the Chairmanship of Bill Ivey, the National Endowment for the Arts, with the support of its cultural organization partners throughout the nation, has slowly and steadily climbed from the brink of elimination to a consensus of support by the Congress of the United States. This progress is due to visionary leadership, a directed message, attention to administrative detail and a concerted effort to make the work of the agency non-partisan. At this very moment, there is a huge opportunity to capitalize on this recent record of success. To squander that opportunity by less than anything but meticulous attention to every detail of the agency’s operations and message would be a tragedy of untold proportions.

OLIVE: I can only address this issue from my own time at the NEA. In 1994, at the request of the White House, NEA Chairman Jane Alexander convened the NEA’s first national conference on the arts, entitled ART 21: Art Reaches Into the 21st Century. Held in Chicago, people from around the country came to talk about the future of the arts and the NEA. Despite much commitment and energy from those who attended in person as well as those who participated online through Arts Wire, we at the NEA failed Jane and the field when we did not find a way to keep the momentum moving and keep those who had been engaged with us involved in planning for the future of the agency.

BARRY: Where do you think the Endowment should allocate its funds – as between organizations and artists, initiatives and programs, the creation of art and organizational operations?

TONY: The NEA is prohibited by law from funding artists directly. Our nation is too large and too diverse to expect an agency as small as the NEA, by itself, to adequately serve all Americans. Only by strategically allocating funds to its partner arts organizations throughout the nation can the NEA support excellence in the arts, bring the arts to all Americans, and provide leadership in arts education. 40% of the agency’s grant funds are directed to the states by means of formula grants. I believe the agency can best use its remaining 60% of grant funds through the careful crafting of programs and initiatives designed to both support and advance the work of the agency’s partner organizations while at the same time bring the arts to all Americans.

OLIVE: I’m not certain it’s productive to opine on funding allocations when a holistic approach to the agency’s work is what is needed to inform all of these ideas.

PETER: I think the old NEA, pre-1990 or so had it about right. It gave primary focus to arts organizations, and a prescribed % to the states and LAA’s. I would re-examine the latter—states and LAA’s—in light of their growth, the NEA”s now severely constrained budget and see if the proportions still make sense, likely they do.

For organizations I would pour more into Challenge Grants, and expand their use even for smaller orgs, perhaps with a TA (fundraising) component kicked in. I would re-ignite fellowships for artists, but wrap it with more recognition in addition to the grant itself, all the research says artists value such recognition/marketing exposure almost as much as or more than the $$$. I would make organizational grants as unrestricted as possible, if the organizations are worth funding then they are worth leaving them alone to decide their priorities, operations vs. programming; project funding makes us all concoct make believe grant proposals written as much to fit the tight guidelines as to really helping meet an organizational priority. In my opinion most arts groups need to spend MORE money on operations than they do, why is “administration” such a dirty word in the arts and in nonprofits? Where in the world do funders think the presentation of art comes from: Administrative support. Duh.

Finally, I would revisit all discipline categories to see if there are collaborative opportunities to relieve NEA budgets, ie, can the Humanities be roped into more Folk Arts funding/presentations?

BARRY: Ok, let me get to the guts issue. What would you like to see the Endowment accomplish in the next four years? What policies should govern its actions? What should be its priorities? What advice would you offer the new Chairman as he sets his agenda for the next four years?

PETER: It is time for the endowment to return to being an outpost of the arts in government instead of government in the arts.

Jane Alexander, God bless her, did many wonderful things there 15 years ago but she truly, in my opinion, ate the seed corn when she agreed to: 1) Do away with the discipline programs in favor of broad general cross cutting “themes” as an organizational structure; 2) Discontinued artist fellowships in the face of Congressional hostility, and, worst of all: 3) changed the National Council on the Arts from a panel of arts experts with a few patrons to a vanilla group of political appointments of mostly patrons.

So, not surprisingly, I argue for return of the disciplines (museums, visual arts, music, etc), restore fellowships, for this will re-ignite advocacy at the local level when arts groups and their Boards can see money going into THEIR field (recognizing this creates discipline competition but so what?) plus will fill the NEA again with artists, managers, real arts leaders who can be persuaded to leave their field for the betterment of the arts in America; then, most important, revert the National Council to the 26 member presidentially appointed group it originally was. Let’s get artists on board again! What made NEA great was Donald Hall, Yo-yo Ma, James Earl Jones, Jamie Wyeth, Arthur Miller, Beverly Sills, Theo Bikel, Arthur Mitchell, Martha Graham, Isaac Stern, etc; let Obama use them as his “shield”, i.e., if he does not like a particular grant he can always say “yes, but, I will not tell the NCA what to do, they are the experts!” Well, make them expert again.

And get Congress out of the NEA’s structure.

In other words, re-organize the agency. Do this first, do this well, do it thoroughly, do it only once.

We have a Dem congress, lets use it, and these changes can be made in an appropriation bill, we do not have to wait for re-authorization. In its present form the agency’s structure is vague, hazy with cross sector jargon, so poorly funded that the average mid-large size community foundation in the USA gives more to the arts locally than does the NEA nationally. Its budget is smaller than when I was on NCA in 1994.

STEVEN: The first thing the new chairman could do is reenergize the National Council for the Arts and actually give them a mandate to research, evaluate, and suggest a coherent framework for addressing the public interest in art and culture in America. A second thing the chairman could do is to continue to look for ways to make cultural policy a “West Wing” and not an “East Wing” issue in Washington. The NEA’s work with the Department of Justice and its work around disability and design are critical arenas for engaging public policy where the arts are in a position to lead. These efforts should be models as the new chairman considers future paths.

If I could close my eyes and re-envision a government agency whose purpose was to advance cultural vitality and nurture and deploy the arts in the service of the public interest, I honestly don’t think I would arrive at the model we have now. Others very well might choose this model and it is incumbent upon them to defend it in a way that clearly shows its advantage for advancing cultural vitality and our collective good. If it were me, I might focus on a government agency that was all about “access” – giving citizens the tools to enable their own creative capacities. How about providing vouchers to every citizen to learn some artistic skills/craft – from painting to dance to media production or design?
Or, why don’t we orient the entire Agency around the Arts Corps concept. Let’s not just ask artists to volunteer for their communities. Like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, lets pay young people – artists, filmmakers, composers, dancers – to spend two years dedicating their craft and talent to serving their communities. I believe either cultural vouchers or a robust Arts Corps could easily be defended as the appropriate role for government in advancing the cultural interests of our American democracy. There might be an equally good argument for our current model, but, frankly, its never been articulated in a way that would be convincing to most Americans, and not just to those who are committed patrons and fans of the fine arts.

TONY: I think it obvious that our hope for the future of the National Endowment for the Arts is continued success, expansion of its funding, increased support to its many partners – the arts organizations that it serves and funds – for ongoing projects, and funding newly created programs and initiatives heretofore not supported by the NEA.

The mission of the NEA should govern its actions -- namely to support excellence in the arts – both new and established, to bring the arts to all Americans and to provide leadership in arts education. The future of the NEA hinges on its ability to demonstrate to Congress, to its cultural partners and to the American public that it is going about accomplishing these three broad GOALS. While dozens of “priorities” come to mind, no priority can be accomplished without adequate funding. Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts comes from a single source: Congress. Therefore, members of Congress must recognize the value of the NEA and the specifically the value that NEA funding brings to his or her Congressional District.

I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Chairman Landesman, but I offer to him my sincere congratulations and best wishes. First and foremost, I would suggest that Chairman Landesman value the judgment of the NEA staff who I know eagerly anticipate his leadership. Each artistic discipline that receives NEA funding is well represented by NEA staff colleagues who are passionate advocates for their assigned discipline and are keenly attuned to the needs, issues and concerns of that discipline.

Next, include on your staff individuals who know the “inside the beltway” ropes. At a minimum – and at times it’s hard to do -- respect the ways of Washington. Spend time on the Hill cultivating the support of those that will ultimately determine, to a large degree, the success the agency will enjoy over the coming years. Finally, get out of Washington whenever possible. Make time to see our country and the remarkable artists and arts organizations found in every community.

OLIVE: I had the opportunity to work at the NEA (1993 to 2000) as the director of policy and research during the Clinton Administration. I think it’s fairly safe to say that the last thing anybody currently at the NEA is interested in hearing are the musings of former staff. But I do think that there are actions the NEA can always undertake that transcend the party in power and whoever the chairman is and can be agreed to by most if not all current and former staff:

• As an advocate, the NEA is uniquely positioned to champion the value of the arts. And it is not only the chairman who can play this role. The program directors are experts in their fields and can speak knowledgeably and persuasively about the sector in general and their discipline in particular. They get to see work from across the country and understand the breadth and depth of what is out there.
Grantmakers in the Arts has found that among the things most needed by the arts and cultural sector right now in this economic downturn are foundations and other arts agencies using their bully pulpits to talk about the importance of the arts and why arts funding is important.

• The gathering and publication of data and research has been an important, longstanding role of the NEA, and I hope that role not only continues but is strengthened. Too often undervalued and under resourced, the NEA’s Research Division has provided reliable information on a vast array of topics, ranging from audience participation to analyses of trends in the arts fields and disciplines. How effectively we manage and fund our cultural institutions depends largely on how well we understand the influences affecting their businesses. We can only make cogent cases for the arts if we understand audiences and their motivations for participating, or not. Increased funding would allow the Research Division to more of this valuable work.

• Lastly, the NEA can’t do everything. Trying to respond to all the needs we have for leadership in the arts will only diminish the effectiveness of the NEA. Each new administration at the NEA, in consultation with the program directors and National Council on the Arts, needs to establish priorities for the role it can uniquely play in service to arts and culture, including individual artists. Having said that, newly appointed senior deputy Joan Shigekawa is extremely knowledgeable about media and media policy, and it will be interesting to see whether the NEA sees any potential in building on her expertise as it sets priorities. The implications for arts groups and artists in the arenas of media, media policy, social media, etc., with regard to the creation and distribution of and participation in the arts are substantial.

My advice to Rocco Landesman is to realize that, while the NEA operates in a highly charged political environment, he is surrounded by well-qualified program directors who, along with senior deputy Joan Shigekawa, can help him maneuver the agency toward an effective agenda while understanding the political culture. Genuine change can be slow-going in Washington, and it often takes newcomers a while to recognize that. But it is possible if people are patient, strategic, and savvy in their tactics. An example of this is how, slowly and carefully, the NEA has expanded its recognition of individual artists, most recently adding opera to the mix of individual honorees. Steps like this can lead to a potential reinstatement of artist fellowships somewhere down the road.

DIANE: my advice to Rocco Landesman would be:

1. Continue to define, support and promote excellence in all artistic disciplines.

2. Set a strong example of the importance of funding both organizations and individuals.

3. Explore new delivery systems and organizational models for nonprofit arts that will enable them to thrive. Given the spirit of the Obama administration to deploy new energy and new thinking to address inequities, fix things that don’t work or build systems that will, what an opportune time for the NEA to focus some of its energy on development of a more financially self-sustainable, more manageable, delivery system for the arts. Organizations have grown too dependent on the tenacity and passion of those who work in this field, and too reliant on outside sources (God bless them). The nonprofit platform is doing little to ensure or fuel the future sustainability and vibrancy of our sector.

4. Create more effective initiatives to help the sector increase market share. This is not happening fast enough.

5. Harness the interest, energy and resources of the for-profit creative sector to support the nonprofit creative sector, especially in its pursuit of all of the above.

6. Make a stronger, more visible national case for the essential role of the arts in community development. Identify other private and public sector resources to invest (side-by-side with the NEA) at the national, state and local levels.

7. Encourage more cross pollination of arts, culture, history and heritage at the national level to expedite partnership development at the local level. Silo-ization of funding, policy, support systems, etc. is impeding collaboration and partnership development in communities.

BARRY: Fascinating discussion. I'll have some follow up questions for the panel members tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I would like to encourage all our upcoming panelists to comment on anything said thus far, and / or to pose questions of their own. Note also that the readership can comment at any time or pose their own questions.

MORE TO FOLLOW..............................

Wednesday, September 16.

STEVEN: In several posts, people suggest a core mission of the Endowment is to bring excellent art to citizens across the country. I do not read the authorizing language in this light. Why is artistic excellence, promoted by the government, necessarily serving the public interest? Or why is it serving the public interest better than say efforts to enable the creative capacity of all citizens (through arts learning or through giving citizens an opportunity to access the materials they need to pursue their creative passions)? I am happy to entertain that the government should be in the business of supporting “excellence in the arts” – but we need to support this position with clear and convincing public interest arguments.

BARRY: Let me ask a couple of follow up questions:
It would seem the agency is once again a lightning rod for political controversy. Without analyzing or deconstructing the motivations and machinations behind current or future attacks on the Endowment, or the arts in general, what can the agency do to protect itself from being cast as a partisan issue? Is the current political atmosphere so charged that the success of Chairmen Ivey and Gioia in drumming up widespread bipartisan support in Congress is now again at risk? How can the Endowment best maintain its neutrality and still move forward with advancing the arts as a part of the process of policy formulation, or should it? And if it should, then in what areas? What would the proper role be of an Endowment that was more at home in the West Wing than the East Wing?

OLIVE: First, much has been said about the successful tenures of Bill Ivey and Dana Gioia, but the success of Jane Alexander has been overlooked. Jane became Chairman in 1993 on the heels of the controversies of Serrano/Mapplethorpe; an uproar over how much of the NEA funding allocation should go to state arts agencies; the resignation (some said firing by President Bush) of John Frohnmayer, and numerous other high-profile incidents that caused the agency to be vulnerable in the eyes of an unfriendly Congress. Despite Jane’s best efforts to build bipartisan support, the agency was dramatically downsized in 1995/96 during her administration, but only because the NEA like other government agencies got caught in the so-called Contract with America led by the Congressional leadership at the time. The action taken had nothing to do with anything the NEA did or didn’t do.

After the downsizing, the restructuring that Jane undertook (referenced by Peter Hero) did not do away with the discipline programs but rather organized them under functional frameworks that were intended to encourage cross-discipline collaboration among the programs. While it may not have been the most artful restructure, it was the tactical move that kept the agency largely intact and free from further Congressional interference, which in turn allowed Bill Ivey and Dana Gioia to work toward rebuilding the agency, albeit each in quite different ways.

Also, the artist fellowships Peter Hero cites as having been eliminated by Jane Alexander were actually eliminated by Congress. Elimination of artists’ fellowships was never sought by Jane.
I believe that skirmishes the NEA has had with Congress often have had more to do with political posturing by Congressional members who viewed the NEA as an easy political football than with legitimate policy differences. The atmosphere currently seems ripe in Congress for similar disputes, and there is probably little the NEA can do to avoid them. The best defense may be a good offense by way of a principled agenda set by the Rocco Landesman and his team.

STEVEN: The political controversy is the result of a young, inexperienced communications director essentially breaking the law by asking grantees to advocate for the President’s agenda. It will be hard to undo the damage done and the West Wing of the White House will be very leery of developing any close ties with the Agency for fear of controversy and political fallout. My own sense is that a focus on the arts and service to the nation would fit, in a relatively nonpolitical way, with the President’s own agenda for emphasizing and encouraging community service. Again, the Arts Corps could be a signature initiative that refocuses the debate away from what is best for the arts and toward what is best for communities. Of course there are political land mines in every initiative, but focusing on young people, service, and community seem like a pretty good bridge to West Wing policy.

BARRY: If the Endowment has been a handmaiden to political objectives, whether internal in the form of arts discipline special interests as Steven suggesed earlier, and external to Congress as both Tony and Peter opine, and has, as far back as the 1990’s Cultural Wars, been a target for attacks that may have had other ulterior target objectives for which the arts were but a strawman -- is there a realistic chance that a return to funding for individual artists is possible in today’s climate? Is it possible to rethink the Endowment’s broad mission and purpose without opening a Pandora’s Box of potential problems – at least at this time? If it is highly unlikely that we will be able to achieve Peter’s goal of “getting Congress out of the NEA’s structure”, and Tony’s assessment that Congress may likely run from any controversial charges leveled at the agency, how does it defend itself?

STEVEN: It could be the perfect time to realign the Agency with the public interest, given the swelling needs of the public in the face of the economic free fall. Focusing on work, service, and preparing kids for an economy based on innovation and creativity are themes that should resonate. I think any grants to artists should be part of the larger jobs program, and not necessarily a realignment of Agency goals and objectives.

OLIVE: The NEA is faced with the challenge of creating programs that are meaningful and useful to the field while avoiding becoming a political football. Too often, those programs that have gained popularity in Congress have done little if anything to advance and strengthen the arts. I hope the agency will be able to build political goodwill, but the mood in Washington doesn’t seem to be conducive to that. I think it is possible to have a relevant NEA without necessarily pandering to Congress. Reading some of what Rocco Landesman has said about his intentions for the agency, the NEA seems poised to do that now.

BARRY: Why doesn’t, as Olive and Diane suggest, the NEA use its bully pulpit more to champion the value of arts & culture, or as Peter suggests, do we rely too much on such things as the economic value argument? And as Peter wonders: why doesn’t the agency take more of a lead role in brokering mutually beneficial initiatives between the arts & the sciences?

STEVEN: I love the idea of brokering mutually beneficial initiatives between the arts and the sciences; or mutually beneficial initiatives between the arts and the State Department; or between the arts and disability services; or between the arts and transportation; or the arts and the Office of the Trade Representative. Links already exist for these relationships, but they should become a priority for the Agency. This is what Bill Ivey would have done had he had another 4 years as Chairman…. He would have gone agency to agency to involve the NEA in the public policy interests of a range of agencies – both as those agencies impact the arts and as the arts can serve to help meet the policy objectives of those agencies.

OLIVE: We don’t know what the NEA will do under its new leadership, so it may end up doing all of these things. Past NEA administrations have emphasized partnerships with other non-arts federal agencies, such as Peter Hero suggests, but I don’t know how actively such initiatives are sought or where they fall in the list of priorities.

Also, I didn’t mean to imply earlier that the NEA does not use its position well as a voice for the arts – I think that the various chairs have been out on the stump, as have the program directors. I am sure this will continue. And there is probably a role for National Council members to be voices as well. But the NEA tends to get the most media coverage when there’s a controversy and not when its staff is out across the country making the case for the arts.

BARRY: Peter and Tony's responses coming later today, and Anthony and I will recap tomorrow.

UPDATE NOTE - Thursday 9/17 4:30 pm : As John Steinbeck observed in his famous novel: "The best laid plans of Mice & Men often go astray". Despite as much prior planning as could be done, and the best intentions of everyone involved, in online discussions like this -- cast over several days -- some participants inevitably have things arise which takes them off their schedule. Obviously Tony and Peter have both gotten caught up in the pressing matters of their workaday jobs, and haven't yet been able to add their thoughts to the follow up questions. This may happen from time to time over the course of the next six weeks. My apologies. Still, I am very pleased with the first panel and thank them for their insightful observations and thoughts and for a provocative launch to this continuing discussion. They have already given us much to think about.

I will add Tony and Peter's responses just as soon as I receive them.

In the meantime, Anthony Radich and I will summarize this first panel tomorrow and add some of our own thoughts on some of the comments made so far, and preview next week's panel.

Please check out the comments to date - click on comments below.

Friday, 9/18. 8:30 am

Here's Tony's thoughts to the follow-up:

TONY: What can the arts agency do to protect itself from being cast as a partisan issue? Is widespread bipartisan support in Congress again now in jeopardy?
First, I would offer that Barry’s August 9, 2009 entry entitled “Back to the Future - Fighting the Cultural Wars of the 1990s All Over Again” should be required reading for anyone concerned about the future of the National Endowment for the Arts and arts policy in general in our country.

Is widespread bipartisan support in Congress again now in jeopardy? Yes it is. Take a look at the editorial printed this week in the Washington Times – While the flap over NEA stimulus funds proceeds was for all practical purposes baseless, this current controversy has the potential to undo the progress and advances made with Congress over the last 12 or so years. One controversial headline has the ability to race through every media outlet and the halls of Congress with dazzling speed. The trick is to immediately communicate directly to members of Congress and their staffs the facts of the matter, and at the same time stalk the story, provide the media with the facts and demand corrections whenever possible. The “no comment” stonewall approach will not work when it comes to scrutiny of the NEA.

I don’t think it reasonable to expect to get Congress out of the NEA’s structure. The culture of Washington DC is the culture of power. Power is enabled by money. Congress wields power through the appropriations process. While I like the sound and feel of some of my colleagues alternate missions for the agency, it seems to me that -- in the economic and political climate that is our reality – it still boils down to Congress and the perceived use of the taxpayer dollar. The NEA must serve all Americans and bring to them excellence in the arts.

As is being evidenced on a daily basis, a roomful of screaming constituents upset at their elected MOC over government waste and excessive spending is fodder for the media and potential failure when it comes to re-election. A single FALSE news item regarding the work of the NEA– if not immediately answered and clarified – has the potential of clearing the room of members of Congress when it comes time to maintain appropriations for the NEA. A FACTUAL news item evidencing questionable use of the taxpayer dollar through an NEA grant will do the same. For this reason alone, I would not think it advisable to return to grant support for individual artists. As was learned in the 1990’s, all it takes to bring down the NEA is one artist who places more value on his or her artistic message than on the precious little cultural funding set aside for the NEA and its grantees.

BARRY: I think this first panel has given us much to think about. What are your thoughts on what has been said so far Anthony?

ANTHONY RADICH: One thing that strikes me about what has been written, is that the group finds great value in a federal arts agency, even if they believe it to be imperfect. I too honor the NEA and all it has accomplished over the years. However, like some of the writers, I also think the agency needs to find a more contemporary and compelling policy reason to--not just exist--but flourish. I often say that much of the public sector arts world is working hard to realize a vision for the arts in America as that vision existed in 1975. I was there, it was a great vision--but calendar year 2009 is rolling toward a close.

BARRY: What keeps us then from updating that vision?

ANTHONY: This lack of a vision with meaningful public traction is, I believe, very much related to the common overreaction of the public sector arts community to charges form the political right. In most cases, charges made from that part of the political spectrum have been rooted in poor information, a twisting of the facts, and the need for grandstanding. Yet, some of the criticisms have been on the mark. I believe the field overreaction to these critical pin pricks is rooted in the fear that once the core issue of what the value public support of the arts has for the public is raised, the public's embrace of funding would be revealed to be very thin. Thus, anyone who raises the issue of the value of public support for the arts has tremendous power because, even if their critique might be readily refuted, that critique holds the potential to reveal the fragility of the public's embrace of sector support of the arts.

I was surprised that the invited writers said very little about the modest scale of NEA support for the arts, and what that may imply for the future. In real dollar terms, the agency has not enjoyed growth for many, many years. While I would embrace a vision of $500 million or one billion federal dollars for the arts, the advocacy infrastructure for that level of funding is not in place. Because the realization of such a goal is not realistic in the short term, the NEA and others should work to help the nonprofit arts become relatively more self sufficient. That means the agency should be supporting the development of a strong national infrastructure for the nonprofit arts. Such support would be realized through more substantial investment in the areas of research, professional development, assistance in the support of entrepreneurship focused on the development of earned income, and investment in the development of technology to aid in the administration of the arts. Investments in these types of field-building endeavors would help leverage a stronger cultural community--and one that could live in a world where, unfortunately, public sector funding for the arts is likely to be limited until the national advocacy effort is mature enough to successfully argue for substantial new federal funding for the arts.

BARRY: How does the Endowment possibly move in any other direction when there is a whole entrenched contingent of grantees largely dependent on agency funding – including many smaller states?

ANTHONY: The NEA, like all federal agencies inevitably do, has become partially ensnared by its own cluster of special interests. These special interests are commonly more interested in the status quo than reshuffling the program and funds-allocation deck in a way that allows the agency to move forward. To break the back of those who cultivate the stagnation of the agency out of self interest, NEA leadership needs to invite them and others into a new vision for the NEA agency and work with them to negotiate a migration of the special interests away from their pots of gold and special ears in the agency. Doing so will give the NEA the programmatic and fiscal freedom to move into the twenty-first century.

BARRY: Intelligent discussions more often than not, raise as many, if not more, questions than they answer.

• How we can balance the positive gains that might be made in embracing, as Peter Hero suggests, the artist, and those that would come from turning our energies toward strengthening the infrastructure as Anthony convincingly argues for? Or might that choice be only an either / or option?

• Has the absence of charismatic artists championed by the NEA diminished our opportunity for public support?

• Is the political reality and the fragility of the support for the Endowment and arts in America such that our options are severely limited in re-envisioning the agency’s mission if we want to avoid another round of attacks and defense?

• How do we begin to frame a national policy for arts & culture provision, and move to involve the arts in a whole panoply of programs where they might add value as we begin to ‘suss’ out what the arts can or cannot do for the public good, as Steven questions?

• How do we free ourselves of the yoke of the special interests that have a stake in the status quo of the agency (noted by both Peter and Anthony) as a pre-condition for the process of creating a new vision for the Endowment?

• Should the impetus for a national policy for arts & culture reside somewhere like the National Council for the Arts, or should it come from the grassroots bottom up?

• Will the arts ever embrace real advocacy capacity - not just on the federal level but on state and local levels as well – which I certainly argue is essential if we are ever to achieve meaningful government budget support?

• Without an increase in its funding pool, how does the agency re-allocate (were such a move wise or not) any of its current funding without angering those who now see Endowment funding as an entitlement?

There are doubtless many more questions suggested by the comments proffered by our First Panel.

Please feel free to add you own comment below.

NEXT WEEK - Tuesday, September 22nd – the SECOND PANEL will tackle these and other issues as we continue the discussion -

Bob Lynch – President & CEO Americans for the Arts
Jonathan Katz – Executive Director, National Association of State Arts Agencies
Patrick Overton – Director, Front Porch Institute
Sandra Gibson – Executive Director, Association for Performing Arts Presenters
Anne Katz - Executive Director Arts Wisconsin, Immediate Past Chair, State Arts Action Network
Don Adams – Cultural Policy Analyst
Brad Erickson – Executive Director, Theater Bay Area
Celeste DeWald - Executive Director, California Association of Museums

More to follow.........................

Have a great weekend.

Don't Quit