I like the way the Occupy movement has sent an echo across the country, encouraging all sorts of people toward questions of systemic inequality. Many voices have recently weighed in on questions of equity in this country’s cultural funding apparatus, shattering a resigned quiescence that had taken hold in too many hearts and minds. In part, their conviction and passion—like my previous essay here—was stimulated by a timely Online Forum on Equity in Arts Funding, focusing on The National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy’s (NCRP) recent report by Holly Sidford, Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy.
Surely, the report was already well underway when Occupy emerged this fall. But the timing was fortuitous. The movement has stimulated artists, leaders, and commentators to a new readiness to engage in serious debate, enlivening a field that had hardened into a predictable shape. Justifiable anger and resentment flowed from those most affected by years of funding cuts and attacks from the right. Many of the rest displayed a demoralized resignation in which the most they dared hope was to be hurt a little less than feared. At least temporarily, that is changing. If the green shoots of deliberation and debate are watered, they could grow into a full-scale national conversation about the public interest in culture.
Need I say that I’m ready and waiting?
(If you want to sample recent discourse, in addition to the blogs GIA has posted, here are a few commentaries by Diane Ragsdale, Barry Hessinius, Clayton Lord, and Scott Walters‘ four-part series, “Occupy Lincoln Center.” Some of the discussion is rippling beyond, as in this post on “Philanthropy, Venture Funding and F***ing S**t Up” by green thought leader Alex Steffens, who points out the same dynamics in other sectors.)
The consensus seems to be that, evaluated in terms of equity, the current funding system is broken. (I’d like to pause to bookmark this moment, because while the system been broken for a very long time, many more people are now willing to say so. I hope that signals a change in the weather.)
So now what? In her contribution to the GIA forum, Holly Sidford poses a set of challenges that turn on precisely that question: “What if we could start fresh and design a new system of support for arts and culture in this country, with equity as one of its fundamental tenets?”
(In case you think I was exaggerating about readiness: I’ve been asking and answering that question for decades, beginning with an ancient artifact commissioned by the California Arts Council in 1978, and continuing up through my book New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development and more recent proposals for a new WPA, such as “The New New Deal 2009: Public Service Jobs for Artists?” and “The New New Deal, Part 2–A New WPA for Artists: How and Why.” The question has also been asked and answered by scholars, activists, and policymakers in other parts of the world, with results that are often hugely relevant, and so far, just as often ignored. But as Shakespeare wrote, “ripeness is all.” Is the time ripe for this discussion? Fingers crossed.)
I’m happy as a clam when I’m tinkering with system design, suggesting ways to configure programs that are closer to the ground or otherwise more efficient and effective.
(Indeed, I’d be thrilled to consult with anyone who wants to go at this worthy project seriously: a foundation or public agency that wants a truly fresh and promising approach; an academic institution or service organization that wants to engage the question for the benefit of the field; or a think-tank that wants to approach this supremely worthy challenge with new eyes and new energy. If any of those describe you, please contact me to take advantage of my decades of study, experimentation, social imagination, and practical knowledge on the subject.)
Whee! Brainstorm! Let’s have a national El Sistema in all art forms, a new WPA, a teaching artists corps, an infusion of artists’ work in every social and educational system! What are your ideas?
But before the makeovers start flying, its really important to look at first principles. The current system is astoundingly inequitable in sharing resources with rich and poor, rural and urban, genders, races, practices, ethnicities, and so on: however you slice it. But that’s not all that’s wrong. The system fails because it is built on faulty wiring, with significant tangles where there should be flow. Below, I single out three big ones: the private-public toggle, the means-and-ends muddle, and the public-interest pickle.
THE PRIVATE-PUBLIC TOGGLE
The existing arts funding apparatus in the U.S. was set up to fill in gaps in private funding. In the mid-60s, private foundations commissioned major studies of what one (The Performing Arts: Problems and Prospects, issued by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund) called “the income gap”—the gap between what major institutions could achieve through box office and contributions and the budgets to which they aspired. These laid out the blueprint for the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. They were infused with fear of letting the public into the private world of prestige arts, as this central statement from the Rockefeller report illustrates:
We must never allow the central focus on quality to weaken or shift. Popularization in any realm often leads to the reduction of standards. In our effort to broaden the audience base, we must not be led to accept imitation as a substitute for creation, mediocrity as a stand-in for excellence. Democratization carries with it a peril for art, even as it does for education. There are no guarantees against the dilution of standards that often accompanies an expanding public, but a constant critical awareness of the danger can do much to prevent its consequences.
Following private donors’ lead was the main public goal, which is exactly backwards. (The same backwards logic has had oil companies dictating energy policy, banks and brokerages dictating economic policy, and so on—and we know how well that has worked, don’t we, 99%?) The public interest has to come first. All the imbalances, prejudices, and short-sightedness that has followed stems directly from the error of putting it last.
Of course, individual patrons and donors are free to play in art markets however they wish. But when it comes to organized private philanthropy and public subvention, there isn’t a hard-and-fast line. Indeed, foundations are granted exemption from taxes in exchange for their public benefit. If that doesn’t lead, they don’t deserve a break from taxpayers. The dialogue that articulates the public interest in culture needs to encompass everyone.
THE MEANS-AND-ENDS MUDDLE
With private patronage as the model, both public and private funding has naturally centered on selecting worthy end-products. Most grants programs focus on choosing between project proposals, commonly selecting from a pool of proposals many times larger than will be funded. Which idea sounds best? Which artists and organizations have the best reputations? Who knows whom? Foundations and public agencies spend lots of time developing guidelines, operating panels, and evaluating programs. But very often, the same artists, groups, and projects are funded regardless of guidelines, because the underlying activity is a kind of shopping, and brandnames sell.
Within this framework, relatively few are anointed, the grantmaking process is expensive and time-consuming, and money doesn’t go very far. The alternative—to support means instead of ends—doesn’t get much attention in this country, even though it embodies a far more democratic impulse. Subsidizing rehearsal and performance space, teaching and learning, jobs for artists working in community: all such forms of investment maximize the benefit of each dollar, freeing artists and organizations to work in and with their communities, rather than always focusing on raising short-term funds for approved end-products.
THE PUBLIC-INTEREST PICKLE
By definition, all public policy should be grounded in an articulation of the public interest. So far, the main force driving U.S. cultural policy has been an assertion of the needs of nonprofit arts organizations, easily dismissed by ideologues who deny there is any public interest in culture. The debate turns on grants, ignoring other forms of intervention (such as training, technical assistance, regulation, taxation, promotion and distribution, job development, and so on). Instead of a war of counter-assertions, we need understand cultural development as analogous to economic development.
Consider the nation through an economic development lens, and it’s easy to see that we want to create more sustainability and prosperity, which means more jobs, capital, and infrastructure allowing these social goods to flow to all regions and communities. Through a cultural development lens, comparable national goals emerge: we want to know each other better, reveling in our diversity, supporting the infrastructure to enable that; we want much broader cultural and social inclusion; we want a lively, vibrant, diverse cultural landscape; and we want to recognize and protect culture as the crucible in which we work out identity, shared meaning, and a positive modus vivendi.
To give a sense of what the public interest in culture might be, a few (but by no means all) of the cultural policy goals I’d like to see as part of our national yardstick for cultural development:
- Full cultural citizenship, where all have equal encouragment and support to feel at home in our own communities, to have a say in cultural life, to see and be seen, understand and be understood by our neighbors;
- Active cultural participation, to balance a surfeit of passive private-sector entertainments, with ample opportunities to learn, create, and experience the cultural commons, bringing us out into connection with our fellow citizens;
- Full social integration of arts methods and approaches, so that education, healing, and every other public good has the benefit of artists’ gifts and methods to enliven and engage community members;
- Awareness of and intervention throughout the entire cultural landscape, seeing commercial culture, nonprofit work, and informal participation as an ecology, and providing stimulus toward national goals throughout the ecosystem;
- Equity in the distribution of resources and access to systems, so that everyone has equal access to the means and fruits of cultural creativity, with restorative funding to redress past imbalances;
- Awareness of the cultural impact of public policies and actions (such as urban redevelopment), giving community cultural life a standing in decisions that are now seen as merely economic; and
- Many opportunities to learn and practice imagination and empathy through arts work, consciously investing in our collective capacity to develop compassion and connection through many forms of sharing stories.
Focusing on systems without laying down this foundation of goals and values complicates things without improving them. So far in the history of U.S. cultural policy, changes have been made piecemeal and defensively, nipping and tucking in response to criticism without even aspiring to an overarching clarity. That’s why the current system seems so jury-rigged and kludgy, like the federal tax code.
Before we start drawing up blueprints, we need to engage a national converation, grounded in the three foundational public policy questions: Who are we as a people? What do we stand for? How do we want to be remembered?
When we rise to the task of answering those, the worthy challenge Sidford has posed in designing a cultural support apparatus can be met. To do that, we have to get serious about cultural policy. Making up for private shortfalls or balancing existing inequities in nonprofit grants are only part of the task. It also has to include addressing the imbalances and distortions created by the consumer cultural industries, or else it’s just redecoration, not deep renewal.
To my fellow congregants in the church of art: may we have the courage to seize this moment, giving it all it deserves. Here’s Leonard Cohen for inspiration: “Land of Plenty.”
Don’t really have the courage
To stand where I must stand
Don’t really have the temperament
To Lend a helping hand
Don’t really know who sent me
To raise my voice and say:
May the lights in The Land of Plenty
Shine on the truth some day.