There’s Something Happening Here – 2

What it is ain’t exactly clear, but over on Arlene Goldbard and Barry Hessenius’s art clout blogfest, Diane Ragsdale suggests that the NEA should be “disintegrated and it’s components set free” in response to Arlene and Barry’s prompt: “With a blank slate and all your powers of social imagination, redesign it.”  There is too much symbolic capital in our federal and state arts agencies to disband them and start from scratch.  In the absence of financial capital, we should retain as much of the symbolic kind as we can. Yet, the system can and should be re-designed.  Doing so may get us that much closer to achieving Bill Ivey’s “Cultural Bill of Rights” as elucidated by Diane.   My redesign of the NEA and the state arts agencies would do the following:

1. Incentivize innovation.  Small arts organizations should not be considered in the same pool with large, highly-capitalized and well-staffed organizations.   The organizing principle of NEA grant programs is discipline-based: dance, design, music, etc.   Knock down these traditional – and I would add outmoded – disciplinary silos and replace them with grant programs to organizations delineated by size.   A grant of $10,000 means little to an organization with a $10M budget, but is transformative to one with a $150K budget.   Large organizations in particular would have to show how grants for innovation would be invested in something truly new.  Other grant programs (see #4 below) would support the ongoing production of mainstream forms. Further, the dissolution of the disciplinary silos removes the current disincentives for groundbreaking interdisciplinary work.

Get rid of the three-year rule.   Forcing an organization to have been in business for three years before it can apply for a government grant reifies the status quo by supporting only existing, stable organizations.  Yes, it’s riskier to put public money toward an organization without much of a track record, but without risk there will not be reward.

2. Reinstate individual artist grants. Art is made by artists. Support them.   How can a granting agency decide if an artist is “worthy?”  Don’t try.  Artists of all stripes apply to be in a pool and then individual artist grants are awarded by lottery.   Funding would be distributed quite literally as seed money without curation or reporting.  Any artist meeting some sort of minimum qualifications would have equal chance at securing funding as any other artist.  No reporting necessary – unless that artist wants to go on to second round funding beyond the seed level, in which case some evidence of having produced something would be required.  The lottery system will attenuate the charges of elitism often ascribed to the granting process.  Who am I (or you) to decide that one artist is worthy and another not?  Would this system yield a lot of “bad” art? Maybe.  Offensive art? Probably.  But it would also yield a lot of amazing work that would not otherwise see the light of day.

3. Support community-based arts. My perspective on the value of community arts has shifted 180 degrees since I started out working in commercial theatre in New York.   At that time, I thought all that mattered was the highest level of “professional” work seen on the Broadway stage and in New York’s world-class museums.  That perspective shifted somewhat as I moved to the Midwest and embraced the idea of “regional” theatre, dance, and museums, and further still until I found myself last week in an urban high school dance studio watching some 17-year-olds exploring, through dance, what it means to live in the desert. The work was honest, moving, and beautiful. It was not “professional.”  Government funding should be specifically targeted to the heart of communities, both rural and urban, where artmaking is done not by what we usually think of as “professionals” (although perhaps in collaboration with them), but by the people who live there. (see Home in the Desert for more information on this project, which happens to be funded in part by a grant from the NEA)

4. Preserve cultural heritage. While supporting innovation and the development of new work in communities is critical, so too is preserving our existing culture.  I envision this area of support to have two threads, support for mainstream arts/arts institutions (eg symphony, ballet, etc) but also support for cultural heritage forms, from the hoop dancing of Arizona’s indigenous people to the bluegrass music of Appalachia. New Zealand provide good models for this in its support – and respect – for the cultural products of its indigenous peoples.

Organizing public funding along these four priorities would promote cooperation over competition and artistic production over organizational complacency.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig directs ASU's arts entrepreneurship program, Pave: http://theatrefilm.asu.edu/initiatives/pave/ The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of ASU. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix and "like" the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship at http://www.facebook.com/pages/pave-program-in-arts-entrepreneurship/386328970101 Find Pave's journal, Artivate, at http://artivate.org
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12 Responses to There’s Something Happening Here – 2

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  6. richardkooyman says:

    Linda,
    The truth is we don’t really live in a democracy. Everyone does not have the same chances in life nor do we all have the same political voice or rights. And Art is not democratic. It never has been.
    The biggest myth today that is hurting the way people think about art is that old adage ‘beauty is in the mind of the beholder’. That statement may be true but the fact is that not all of those minds are the same when it comes to knowledge on the subject.
    Back in the 1980′s when NEA grants were awarded to artists it was done by a professional panel of artists, historians, and critics. Decisions were awarded based on professional knowledge and expertise. Those decisions may have been biased but they were at least professionally biased rather than based simply on personal taste. Taste is different than knowledge.
    I’m willing to bet you don’t shop at a grocery store where good vegetables need to be picked out from the bad ones. And I would imagine you don’t think it is a good idea to have smart students attended classes that teach to the lowest common level. No one wants to sit through a bad movie and the majority of people could agree on what the really bad ones are.
    The world of arts organizations are focused on inclusion and participation for all, which is a good thing, but it will have unproductive results if we don’t address the issue of quality.

    • lindaessig says:

      Richard: Thank you for your comment. It appears that there is a fundamental disjuncture between our perspectives. I want art and artistic opportunities to be more democratic and inclusive. Furthermore, I see art participation as a means by which to achieve democracy write large. Arlene Goldbard responded in the same vein to a similar comment you made there, and her statement encapsulates my view on this perfectly: “there’s no funding system that guarantees excellence or even promises to deliver more of it, no matter how you define that. The choice is between an abundance of opportunity and resources for artists (I vote for that side) and scarcity. When you support more, you get more good, more bad, and more in between—there’s no system that guarantees more excellence.”

  7. richardkooyman says:

    Linda,
    As a full time artist, a professional, I have many problem with your earnest suggestions. At the forefront of the problem is the predominant language in arts advocacy today that generalizes everything into “the arts”. Talking about the value of “the arts” or “arts and culture” has become a societal trope. It sounds good but what does it mean?
    What are we suggesting we support, either publicly or privately, when talking about “the arts”? Are we talking about supporting children’s art education and more access to artistic classes for adults? Are we talking about providing support for the general lay publics participation in amateur theater, art exhibitions, and musical events? Or are we talking about supporting professional art producers in society to build a cultural legacy of work that will move, educated and inform society?
    Before we can answer those questions we have to stop talking about all three of these examples as if they were the same thing, “the arts”. Because each one of these examples is a different focus with a different set of functionality to reach different goals.
    The problem is that without distinguishing the difference we get no where. If as you suggest we have a direct granting system to artists ( which I support) that is awarded not based on quality, you help the amateur artists, but hurt the professional. Good art effects people. Good art changes minds and shapes a country. Bad art does nothing for anyone.

    • lindaessig says:

      Richard: Thank you for your comment. I quite intentionally use the big tent term “the arts” to mean all of the sub sectors your describe: arts education, access to participation for adults, fully professionalized producers. Although you write that “without distinguishing the difference we get nowhere,” I respond that when we exclusive rather than inclusive we get nowhere. Direct support for artists based on a lottery system will not hurt professionals because good art is not harmed by bad art, it shines brighter beside it. Good art, however, can be suppressed by biased judgement of its quality.

    • Richard,

      I agree with plenty of what you say in all the threads of comments you have trailed in the blogs that I’ve seen. Obviously you have a much more informed opinion on the art world than I do.

      I absolutely agree with your comment that part of our confusion seems to be a lack of clarity on what the term “art” is supposed to refer to. The breakdown that seems the most crucial to me is between taking art to mean a particular kind of ‘thing’ (a noun), and art to mean a particular kind of activity (a verb).

      You make a bold claim that “Good art effects people. Good art changes minds and shapes a country. Bad art does nothing for anyone.” but it seems to say more about art as product than art as activity. We may have to disagree that the lines between good art objects and bad are so clear, but it seems that the activity of art is seldom wrong. There isn’t good creativity and bad creativity, though we may judge the outcomes in those terms, or we may see it directed in questionable ways.

      Rather, it seems that the curiosity to explore is itself a virtue. And so I would be tempted to say that the activity of art is itself a good thing. And therefore I would also say that even bad outcomes of art are potentially positive experiences. Its often better to have been creative and made crap than to not have been creative at all.

      And the danger is that we punish bad outcomes of art making to the point of discouraging creativity. Art shouldn’t just be the practice of an elite minority who are ‘good’ at it, but a natural birthright of every citizen and our inherent creative capacity. We should nurture even the bad expressions, not just because they may one day lead to better, but because art doesn’t always need to be so serious. Being creative can be its own reward, never mind the outcome.

      And art doesn’t need to be ‘good’ for it to have healing potential, to nourish the maker’s soul and add to the qualitative details of an audience’s lives. Sometimes bad art is precisely what moves us or inspires us. Sometimes bad art is itself an education. Is that such a bad thing?

      But of course we are so easily tempted to look only at the products of art making. The gallery world makes its money on them, and the academic world grades its students on them. This is what the establishment has its arms wrapped around and is of course vested in defending. And its oh so very privledged and aristocratic to keep its heel on the necks of the common folk. What matters their dreams and aspirations? Peons!

      But my question, the question I asked on Arlene’s blog, is whether it is in the establisment’s long term interest to have such a narrow view. By promoting only the exclusivity of ‘good’ art (as passed through their gatekeepers) are they at risk of alienating a populace that is increasingly less comfortable with what they are peddling? Does the establishment run the risk of spurning the public by hiding inside its glorified ivory tower?

      Without making the attempt to reach out and communicate to a more diverse audience are these artists just self satisfiedly hobnobbing with the inner circle of their patrons? And will they show surprise when the rubes and Philistines come for them with their torches, to burn them as the inscrutable heretics they are? Does the arrogance of the establishment have any comeuppance in store?

      If ‘populist art’ is such a derisory thing, then it won’t be a surprisie when that self same populace cuts all the strings to funding the elitist establishment version of art. Can’t blame the bean counters and pencil pushers for denying a privileged past time that mocks them, ridicules their values, and is ultimately irrelevant to its concerns. Can’t have it both ways is all I’m saying…..

      Doesn’t it make much more sense to take the gamble on inclusiveness and build the whole community’s connection to their creative talents? Doesn’t even the esoteric dance of establishment art benefit from having an audience that was nurtured to be curious and creatively engaged? Isn’t this ultimately a win/win situation? Is ‘good’ art REALLY that threatened by the ‘bad’ art? It seems like an interesting question…..

      • lindaessig says:

        Carter: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I particularly appreciate your delineation of art (or artmaking) the process from art the product that results from the process. While you pose most of your questions rhetorically, it seems that you already know (at least most of) the answers. Is “good” art really threatened by “bad” art? Of course not. It is, however, threatened by the exclusivity you describe.

      • richardkooyman says:

        Carter,
        When it comes to art education and exploration I don’t disagree much with what you say. One could say any involvement in art on any level is good. But the question of good and bad, or quality, reaches even into how we teach our children. Certainly there are bad ways to foster creativity and good ways. As a child I have vivid memories of being taught an art project during the holidays where we were instructed to draw a turkey by out lining our hand. We then had to follow the prescribed formula to finish the project. Certainly we can agree there are better ways to foster creativity than that.

        I have been thinking a lot about where the populist idea that the art world is some type of elitist club came from? I’ll go out on a limb and say that I think it is more of a reflection of the person making the claim than it is of the professional or commercial art world.

        The commercial art gallery world and even the major art institutions of our country are open to the public. While you have to usually pay an admission fee to an art museum, just as you would a sporting facility, commercial galleries are free. Most usually have an artist’s or curator’s statement and might even offer a catalog for sale. Galleries and museum work tirelessly ever day to get people to come and visit. Most major museum offer free lectures, free docent tours, and even bookstores where anyone can look at or purchase books that would help anyone be more informed about art issues and the art work.
        As far as I know there has never been a reported case of a staff member or gallery owner pointing a finger and breaking out laughing and calling any visitor stupid or mocking them in any way for any reason.
        Every artists I know, including myself, spends a lot of time and money to promote and invite the general public to studio openings and self promoted events.

        Yet if you will allow me to use your post as an example you accuse the “art world” of failing to reach out to “communicate to a more diverse audience.” You seem to be suggesting that there is something wrong with galleries making money or academia attempting to teach standards of knowledge about art. And on top of that, because I have spent my entire life studying art and informing myself about what is in fact powerful and positive and what is negative and ineffective about art ( good and bad), that somehow I and others in my field deserved to be torched by the Philistines.

        In all sincerity where does this anti- intellectualism come from? Do you also suggest protesting NASA or the AMA because they are failing to include you in what they do or that their vast knowledge of their field is too exclusive in your eyes?

        What I am suggesting is that art advocates like Linda and Arlene make more of an effort to distinguish what they are championing, because the cause of fighting for more support for children’s art education and lay adults participation in the arts is different than championing for more artistic production on the professional level. And this is the current political debate- what is the purpose of the NEA today? Is it to provide the support needed to the producers of the next great America art movement or to educate children and provide more involvement in the arts for the average person?

        Thank you for the discussion. Please don’t think I am attacking you personally. I am simply using your comments as discussion points.

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