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.