This third installment in a weeklong blogfest on art and political power I’m cohosting with blogger Barry Hessenius was authored by Diane Ragsdale, currently attending Erasmus University in Rotterdam (in the Netherlands), where she is researching the impact of economic forces on US nonprofit regional theaters since the 80′s and working towards a PhD in cultural economics. She is the author of the Jumper blog. For the six years prior to moving to Europe, Diane worked in the Performing Arts program at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where she had primary responsibility for theater, dance, and technology-related strategies and grants. Diane is a frequent panelist, provocateur, or keynote speaker at arts conferences within and outside of the US (notable addresses include “Surviving the Culture Change” and “The Excellence Barrier”) and has contributed articles to several publications, including “Recreating Fine Arts Institutions,” which was published in the fall 2009 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
The series began with a dialogue between Barry and myself and continued with Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. Subsequent entries will be authored by Dudley Cocke, director of Roadside Theater; Ra Joy, executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois; and Barry Hessenius and myself. To each, we posed this question:
The way we’ve been doing arts advocacy for the past thirty years isn’t working: the real value of the NEA budget has dropped by well over half, for instance, and state funding has nosedived. We remain timid and unimaginative, acting as if cultural support were a rare privilege instead of a human right. With a blank slate and all your powers of social imagination, redesign it: why and how would artists and arts advocates claim social, economic, and true political power? What would you do for the arts to develop real political clout—and what has to change for us to move down that path?
Please read, forward, and comment. The entire series can be accessed here.
The NEA: An idea whose time has come and gone?
by Diane Ragsdale
Barry and Arlene have done a terrific job of priming this conversation. Here are my thoughts, building on their debate.
Part 1 – On why we may not be doing a better job of advocating for the arts…
It strikes me that there are a couple assumptions embedded in the questions above: (1) that arts organizations desire increased public support (particularly at the federal and state levels); and (2) they have been ineffective at getting this support because they do not have real political clout.
But are these assumptions true? I guess the first proposition I want to put on the table is that perhaps the arts and culture sector in the US is neither inept at nor put off by ‘politics,’ nor simply so demoralized or offended by 30 years in the political dog house that it doesn’t have the will or willingness to engage more strategically with the political sphere. Rather, I perceive that the sector may be quite reasonably shunning the approaches that Barry suggests (contributing money to campaigns, trying to influence elections, building meaningful relationships with politicians) because it is ambivalent about the benefits of public arts funding and long-ago figured out a way to use its perceived dog-house position to its advantage.
I don’t see the sector as Arlene and Barry do—Oliver Twist, cap in hand and a charming accent, pleading for any spare coin or crumb that can be spared. If the efforts seem half-hearted or even half-assed, perhaps it’s because deep down what many of those in the sector feel towards those that would shun them is, “Screw the Philistines, we don’t need them.” In other words, if we appear to be Oliver Twist, perhaps it’s an act?
As Lester Salamon (Johns Hopkins) has written, the US nonprofit sector (generally speaking, not exclusively in the arts) has proven to be incredibly resilient in recent decades, in the face of numerous challenges (including the loss of public support). Is it a stretch to think that such resilience might very well go hand-in-hand with our decentralized, indirect subsidy system? When government closes a door, quite often some wealthy individual opens a window (and doesn’t attach strings to funding like expectations of ‘access’ or ‘education’). And should no benefactor open a window? Well, there’s always the market (after all, it’s in the DNA of many in the sector).
Furthermore, as Arlene noted, the most powerful arts organizations in the arts and culture sector are already able to successfully lobby for line item allocations. So what’s in it for them to fight for a bigger pool for the rest? Again, they’ve figured out how to work the system to their advantage. Furthermore, significantly increased support would probably mean that many more organizations (those nudged out in the 80s and 90s and those that have never been in) would get (back) into the tent. So, if we’re waiting for the organizations that have the most power and influence in the arts and culture sector to lead the charge on this front, I think we may be waiting a long time.
Of course there are those that don’t have wealthy friends or significant government support. To the degree that they’ve survived it is probably by staying small, being entrepreneurial/market-oriented, and/or relying on low-cost (or even free) labor. But let’s face it: even if the budget of the NEA were quadrupled tomorrow most of them would not expect money to be flowing their way.
A different, but perhaps related, question is when will those artists and arts and culture organizations that are not benefitting from the current ‘arts system’ (that is, the large majority of them) take control of and reframe the conversation around culture?
Part II – On why other people may not be buying into us and how we might change it …
Both Arlene and Barry endorse the power of a grassroots movement (though Barry sees this as a longer term goal and secondary to a more immediate strategic engagement with the political sphere). Both also embrace the idea of cultural impact studies. In principle, I do as well; however, I doubt whether either of these approaches would be successful if they were biased towards the nonprofit arts and culture sector and if it were generally perceived that, again, the primary goal of such efforts would be increased support for the NEA.
This leads me to another point (also raised by Arlene). We stand for something both too abstract and too removed from everyday cultural life for most people to fight for. And this seems to suit us just fine. How do we think people in the professional nonprofit fine arts sector would answer (privately, if not publicly) if they were asked the following question?
In the minds of ‘the masses’, is it worse for ‘the arts’ to stand for:
A: Snooty orchestras and avant-garde work created for wealthy people, which you won’t understand and which may challenge your values or sensibilities?
B: Your kid performing in a youth orchestra, your local banjo club performing at the zoo and at senior centers, the American Pie music video created by the ‘dying’ city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Wicked, the Broadway musical?
We need to address why ‘the arts’ are (and have been) such a hard sell in the US. The best explanation I’ve read in recent years is by Bill Ivey (former chairman of the NEA and director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt). Back in 2009, I interviewed Ivey for Grantmakers in the Arts in conjunction with the release of his book Arts, Inc: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights. In our interview (you can read the interview here), Ivey remarked that the US has never come to terms with American culture for what it really is: a grassroots vernacular “that embraces amateur as well as professional, rural as well as urban, and unschooled as well as schooled.” The concentration of public support and private philanthropy on the fine arts is not sustainable, he says, because it “flies in the face of American culture.”
Ivey correctly asserts that when we face resistance to the idea of support for the arts it’s often because our highest priorities are out of sync with those of everyday Americans. Too many people receive little or no tangible benefit from the current nonprofit arts system, thus whatever generalized good feelings citizens may have about the arts don’t translate into sufficient “goodwill” when the arts must compete with education or the environment—when advocacy really counts.
While Arlene and Barry invited those of us blogging this week to start with a blank slate, for my money, Ivey has already proposed an idea (both an ideological reframing and a practical reconstitution) that has legs. Ivey proposes that if we want to achieve true cultural vibrancy we must “adopt a new, comprehensive approach to our arts system” that encompasses the nonprofit, commercial, and amateur arts sectors. Furthermore, he suggests we need to coordinate our interventions in these interrelated sectors in order to serve the public interest. Finally, he proposes a Cultural Bill of Rights, which he says we must be willing to assert, with the goal of providing every American with the benefits of a vibrant, expressive life:
- The right to our heritage—to explore music, literature, drama, painting, and dance that define both our nation’s collective experience and our individual and community traditions.
- The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life—through their art and the incorporation of their voices and artistic visions into democratic debate.
- The right to an artistic life—to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose, design, or otherwise live a life of active creativity.
- The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates America’s democratic values and ideals.
- The right to know about and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived, in many lands, through the ages.
- The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.
In their opening statement Barry and Arlene write, “We remain timid and unimaginative, acting as if cultural support were a rare privilege instead of a human right.” Actually, I would suggest (in line with Ivey) that the beneficiary of cultural support (if we want to talk of it in terms of a right) needs to be reframed in terms of citizens. Ivey writes, “It is time to establish a new set of goals designed to reclaim art and culture for the American people; it is time to assert the rights of citizens to the multiple benefits of an arts system turned to public purposes.”
Part 3 – A possible next step…
So, here’s my suggestion: What if the NEA were disintegrated and its components set free to be recombined (with other components) into an agency to fund the realization of Ivey’s Cultural Bill of Rights? The first order of business could be a broad cultural assets mapping of the commercial, amateur, and professional nonprofit sectors as Ivey has suggested. A second order of business could be trying to understand the interdependencies (on a local, national, and global level) across these sectors, as well as the diverse social, cultural, or economic values and impacts on individuals and communities realized by this comprehensive cultural sphere, and its leverage points. The third order of business could be using this knowledge to advocate for exponentially greater support for those leverage points—that is, where subsidy is both needed and likely to be impactful. The traditionally funded institutions that benefit from the NEA and state support would not be eliminated from the picture; they would be appropriately valued for their role within the larger cultural landscape.
At this point, how beneficial is it for us to advocate for increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts? I’m not challenging current leadership, programs, or strategies or asking how beneficial the money or NEA imprimatur may be to the organizations that receive funding. I’m asking whether the NEA is an idea for which we are likely to garner widespread support now, or in the future. I fear we may be chasing windmills. Political support for the NEA seems to have begun to wane almost as soon as it was written into the legislation.
And as for all that leverage? As John Kreidler points out in his essay “Leverage Lost: The Nonprofit Arts in the Post-Ford Era,” the NEA’s approach to providing seed funds to be matched by other sources was, of course, modeled on the Ford Foundation’s practice, which was widely adopted by all institutionalized funding sources. Those running arts organizations can bear witness better than anyone to the result of this widely-embraced practice: money leveraged is, too often, other money seeking to be leveraged. Everyone is counting on an ever-increasing flow of money and on someone else down the line to pick up the tab; however, resources are limited. We are not growing the pie; indeed, in some cases, we are just swapping leverage. Kreidler has likened it to a Ponzi scheme.
But I digress.
The preservation, advancement, and understanding of America’s diverse artistic and cultural heritage and the rights of citizens to an expressive life are vitally important. But is the NEA an adequate vessel for such goals? Here’s where we are curtailed by not having a larger cultural policy; NEA policy (with its limited mission and role) becomes our de facto cultural policy.
- Perhaps the NEA successfully fulfilled its mission (look at the exponential growth of the sector over the past 30 years)?
- Perhaps we are trying to sustain and advocate for an idea whose time has come and gone?
- Perhaps if we want to achieve real political clout in the arts and culture sector, we first need an idea that exponentially greater numbers of people can buy into?
In a society in which the social structures underpinning artistic and social hierarchies have been crumbling, ‘the arts’ appear to have a choice: become valued as an important part of a more catholic conception of arts and culture or willingly stay in the margins as the last man standing for the old system.