National Endowment for the Arts Receives Injection to Help Art Workers

Today, I am following up with recent news updating a Sweet Entertainment post ‘Do you believe in a Department of Arts and Culture.’

February 14, 2009

From the NEA website: National Endowment for the Arts included in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
Funding will assist arts workers retain jobs

Washington, D.C. — The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed by the House and Senate with $50 million designated to assist the nation’s arts and cultural workforce through funding to the National Endowment for the Arts. More information will be available on the web site after President Obama signs the bill.

In the online discussion that resulted from my original post, one comment brought up the question about whether, and to what extent, art and artists should receive funding from the government. I think its valuable to put the business of art in some perspective so I am posting my reply below to further talk about government funding and the arts.

I see how involving the government in the arts can be heavy on bureaucracy, particularly if the government becomes involved in monitoring the art it (or we, the people) fund. I remember witnessing and contributing to the NEA debates raging on during the early 1990’s.

What if the Department of Art and Culture was not designed to have discussions about the artwork itself, but to explore in what ways the Arts and Culture contributes to the processing and recovery journey that we are currently engaged as a country. The Arts can and do already play a vital, vibrant role in our society, and indeed, our economy. Many great nations throughout history and today recognize the role of the arts in a democratic society.

What bothered me most about the NEA debates, which I find easier to articulate now with some hindsight, and more experience as an artist, is the notion that there has to be national consensus on the selection of every funded work.

What other part of life works like that?

By that logic, are we to discuss every funding choice made in our public institutions? As I do every day when I trust the state’s business to my elected officials, perhaps the Department of Art and Culture will be designed less around the mission of judging every funded work, and instead, the Department will represent a national vote that we, collectively, believe art and culture are valuable – regardless of whether we, as individuals, believe in one particular work or not.

What does finding one’s own funding mean today exactly? What functions of the government should be required to find their own funding?

The good news is that the arts are indeed an engine of economy. According to an Americans for the Arts study released in April, 2008, Arts-related businesses employ nearly 3 million people nationwide. More inspiring is the fact that between 2007-2008, arts-related businesses grew 11.6 percent – an increase four times greater than general employment.

If we consider the billions and billions spent in the last eight years, for which we did not get veto rights, does it make any sense that the arts should be the industry to have to make it on it’s own?

Considering the extremely small percentage of our country’s wealth that goes to government arts funding, one of the smallest among developed nations, isn’t it amazing that the arts have funded itself so far?

Private donations and partnerships contribute greatly to the arts already, and in this way, as a country we are fortunate. Yet, time and time again it has been proven that sometimes art does not reach its financial peak quickly, rather, sometimes the high comes several hundred years later at an art auction in New York City.

The Department of Arts and Culture can tap into the incredible pool of talented and experienced cultural policy makers who are experts in the myriad of ways that the arts enrich our economy, our communities, our health, our democracy, our legacy, and our creative future.

I think its a great idea that artists are encouraged to become more business minded, as any small business owner should. I recently took a business management and planning course, and I felt more empowered.

Yet, I do not believe that the arts should be singled out for limited funding because suddenly each artwork had to pass national muster.

Consider the language by which, in 1965, Congress enacted the NEA and instigated a pledge of federal funds to “help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of . . . creative talent.”

In 1990, the NEA’s mission was amended to state that the Chairperson had the responsibility of ensuring “artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which [grant] applications are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.”

So, one can see, its no wonder that since 1990, most of the agency’s time is often spent deciphering language about ‘decency and respect for diverse beliefs and values,’ instead of sustaining a climate of ‘freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry.’ In my opinion, its an ocean size departure from the original language, and spirit, that I read from the 1965 language.

Instead, the 1965 language speaks to the notion that perhaps one or two or three or four of the grants may go to works that someone else won’t consider art, but that doesn’t make it less artful nor less representative of ‘freedom in thought, imagination, and inquiry…’

Consider the billions spent previously on bonuses for defunct industrial barons in comparison with NEA funding since the NEA debates on funding since then:

‘Between 1965 and 2003, the agency has made in excess of 119,000 grants. Congress granted the NEA an annual funding of between US$160 and US$180 million from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. In 1996, Congress cut the NEA funding to US$99.5 million as a result of pressure from conservative groups, including the American Family Association, who criticized the agency for using tax dollars to fund highly controversial artists such as Robert Clark Young, Barbara Degenevieve, Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the so-called “NEA Four.” Since 1996, the NEA has partially rebounded with a 2004 budget of US$121 million.[1] For FY 2008, the budget is US$144.7 million. [Source: Wikipedia]

In looking at the figures above, one can see how the $50 million from the Stimulus package can be incredible valuable in fostering an arts economy and the freedom to think, opine, and inquire.

I’ll be following up on this topic next week, to bring you info from the teleconference with the NEA that happened right here in San Francisco at the Mission Cultural Center for the Arts where artists were invited to convene to learn more about Arts Stimulus.

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