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.