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Rocco Landesman (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Straight talk. That’s in shorter supply in the Obama administration than a lot of us had hoped. And by that I mean straight as in right at ya rather than around, over or not at all.

But newly-installed head of the National Endowment for the Arts Rocco Landesman is getting out of the gate quickly and speaking his mind. And a lot of what is on his mind is on my mind too. In his first interview after being confirmed (such a sober term) he came out with his candor on.

Here are a few examples of that truth speaking from Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times:

He was particularly angered, he said, by parts of the debate over whether to include $50 million for the agency in the federal stimulus bill, citing the comment by Mitt Romney…that arts money did not belong in the bill. That kind of thinking suggests that “artists don’t have kids to send to college,” Mr. Landesman said, “or food to put on the table, or medical bills to pay.”

In American politics generally, he added: “The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little ‘gay’.”

[Just a small sidebar here to point out that our former Massachusetts governor is, once again, on the wrong side of the argument…]

On funding levels:

On the subject of the endowment’s budget, too, Mr. Landesman did not hold back. Though he would not put a dollar figure on his own fiscal goals, he called the current appropriation of $155 million “pathetic” and “embarrassing.” And he seemed to imply dissatisfaction with increases proposed by Congress and by the president, which both fall short of the agency’s 1992 budget of $176 million.

“We’re going to be looking for funding increases that are more than incremental,” he said.

The role of the arts in the political and policy powerbroking:

“I wouldn’t have come to the N.E.A. if it was just about padding around in the agency,” he said, and worrying about which nonprofits deserve more funds. “We need to have a seat at the big table with the grown-ups. Art should be part of the plans to come out of this recession.”

“If we’re going to have any traction at all,” he added, “there has to be a place for us in domestic policy.”

A new sense of mission:

The new chairman said he already has a new slogan for his agency: “Art Works.” It’s “something muscular that says, ‘We matter.’ ” The words are meant to highlight both art’s role as an economic driver and the fact that people who work in the arts are themselves a critical part of the economy.

“Someone who works in the arts is every bit as gainfully employed as someone who works in an auto plant or a steel mill,” Mr. Landesman said. “We’re going to make the point till people are tired of hearing it.”

As for the former agency slogan, “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art,” he said, “We might as well just apologize right off the bat.”

And regarding Obama:

But it’s an unusual moment in history, he said, and he wanted to be part of it. President Obama was “the first candidate in my memory who made arts part of the campaign,” Mr. Landesman said. “He had an arts policy committee and an arts policy statement and arts advisers.”

Cultural mavens like himself feel they “have one of their own” in the White House, he added. “It makes the arts community feel finally, for the first time in a long time, there might be some wind at their back.”

Love this guy. He’s my injection of hope.

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Elatia Harris, commenter extraordinaire, left this as a response to a comment left to the post below. Thank you Elatia for your reliably insightful and sense-making point of view.

Re: Arts funding:

Much depends on whether you think art follows consumer taste or leads it. And on whether you would be happy for art to reflect culture rather than to stimulate it.

You have to consider how much poorer your life would be if an artist were not different from an entertainer. Maybe not poorer at all, if entertainment is the objective. If what you’re seeking is to beguile your hours, get a change of scene and a sense of relaxation, that’s no bad thing. The government funds the gratification of that aim if you can accomplish these things by going for a day in the park, and you fund it if you buy a ticket to the concert of a commercially successful band. (To say a band is commercially successful is not to slight it, only to emphasize that it’s available on the basis of a ticket, as artistically successful bands for which there is less consumer demand are not.)

If what you want is to immerse in a different reality that might or might not be gentle and fun, however, and to confront rather than escape yourself, taking away food for thought for many days or years — all of this in the company of strangers who are doing more or less the same — then you might want art, perhaps without knowing it. My view is that people want art without knowing it all the time, because we seek transformational as well as restorative experiences, and long to be knocked for a loop. This takes vision, however, and while everyone is responsive to vision not everyone has it.

Some artists do have it. Does this mean they function for the public good? If the answer is yes, then you posit one difference between a consumer, who funds her private idea of a good time, and a taxpayer, who needs to be concerned with the public good even when she doesn’t personally respond to certain artists. Art can reset the human imagination, temporarily turning a consumer into a person who strives and is illuminated. Entertainment can’t risk that, although it occasionally accomplishes it anyway.

You have no right to be entertained at the public expense — as we have seen, that results only in pitting lions against Christians, or perhaps in the creation of “The Yellow River Concerto.” But you have a right to art as you have a right to health care. It should be yours for the price of citizenship, yours like a day in the park.

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Danseteater

The politics of art. That isn’t my field, and yet it is. I listened to the back and forth about arts funding during the Stimulus Bill discussions with mixed emotions. Sometimes the arguments rang true, sometimes they didn’t.

The fact is that OF COURSE we need to fund and support the arts. Those who think otherwise are living in a state of disconnectedness. But for me the operative question is how do you do it? What does “supporting the arts” really mean? Whether your nut is $50 million or $500 million, how do you decide where best to invest? And in this difficult economic environment, what would be the most stimulative approach? And how do you deal with that nasty problem of elitism, perceived and/or real?

Greg Sandow, an arts writer I follow, wrote the following for the Wall Street Journal. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his claims, but I found his point of view provocative and worthwhile. See what you think.

People in the arts had a triumph.

They got culture money into the stimulus bill — but not without a fight. The House, in its version of the bill, gave $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, increasing its budget by more than the third. Then the Senate took that out. Arts advocates mobilized, made phone calls, asked supporters to make some noise. And lo! The final version of the bill restored the funds.

Arts advocates, from Robert Redford to the president of New York’s Lincoln Center, are celebrating now. But I wonder, in a still, small voice, if this is really such a victory.

For one thing, in the larger scope of things, it’s not much money. Fifty million dollars, in a hastily assembled $800 billion stimulus, is just a bubble on a wave. It’s a rounding error, a random fluctuation. It doesn’t mean that arts support runs deep and strong. The battle for the arts has been going on for decades, and in my view — as a person in the arts myself — the arguments we make aren’t nearly strong enough

Take the economic argument. That took center stage in the Battle for the Stimulus. The arts, we like to say, create jobs and bolster the economy. That’s prominently argued on the Web site of Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group. The nonprofit arts, the site insists, generate $166 billion in economic activity each year, and offer the equivalent of full-time employment to 5.7 million souls.

But does this mean — as Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D., N.Y.) told the New York Times, after victory was won — that “if we’re trying to stimulate the economy, and get money into the Treasury, nothing does that better than art”? Well, hardly. Let’s not get carried away. Not even Americans for the Arts suggests such a thing.

And unless you go all the way with Rep. Slaughter, the economic argument for arts support has a hole in it. Other things have economic impact, too. Why choose the arts? All of Michigan is suffering because the auto industry collapsed.

Arts advocates also love to say that arts generate indirect spending and employment. In that same Times article, Kate D. Levin, cultural affairs commissioner of New York City, said that “even the smallest organization can record the fact that the parking lot down the street and the dry cleaner around the corner and the restaurant nearby all do better when the organization is functioning.” But that’s true of any business. In New York, it’s virulently true for Wall Street, whose sickness hurts all sorts of New York enterprises, from real estate to small businesses in the financial district. (Even culture!) This, in fact, became an argument in favor of those hated Wall Street bonuses. Without them, New York’s economy is reeling.

But then the choices that our nation has to make go even further. The San Francisco city government is facing a $576 million budget deficit. Cuts have been proposed, some involving public health. For hours at a meeting of the city’s Board of Supervisors, there were protests from advocates for homeless people, medical clinics that serve the poor, and many other worthy groups.

So somebody proposed an alternative — cut funding for the symphony and ballet. The matter hasn’t been resolved, but would you like to be the opera representative, arguing to keep your funds, with people from endangered clinics in the room?

And what if those clinic workers and others like them say the arts have a lot of money, and that they largely serve an upscale audience? Arts advocates hate that kind of talk. It’s not correct, they say. It’s anti-arts, anti-intellectual.

But let’s not underestimate how persistent those perceptions are, especially when reality at least partly seems to back them up. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera sells some of its tickets for as much as $375 each and has board members who make million-dollar gifts (or, in one case, a $25 million gift — an overflowing cornucopia). In 2006, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the New York Philharmonic paid $2.8 million to its music director and $864,000 to its CEO.

The Met, of course, has huge expenses, as does the Philharmonic. Both can say they’re paying what the market charges for the talent that they need. And the Met, on top of that, is in financial trouble. But will everyday Americans jump up and down for joy if the Met gets extra funds while public health is cut?

The arts are going to need a better strategy. And in the end it’s going to have to come from art itself, from the benefits art brings, in a world where popular culture — which has gotten smart and serious — also helps bring depth and meaning to our lives.

That’s the kicker: the popular culture part. Once we figure that out, we can leave our shaky arguments behind and really try to prove we matter.

Elatia Harris left the text below as a comment to my posting here yesterday. As is often the case with Elatia’s responses to issues I have raised here, this one is too good to not spotlight up front. She identifies concerns that are of significance to all of us who are signed up to ride through life in this creaky, unwieldy culturecraft called art making.

I’ve been highlighting many of these “new world order in the arts” issues on my filter blog Slow Painting, so stop in there and scroll through the last few weeks to find several compelling articles about how this has been playing out, here in the US as well as in the UK. And there is no past tense here—we are watching a slow motion dismantling of a complex armature of reticulated relationships between artists, galleries, collectors, museums, promoters, purveyors, taste makers and the public.

I keep thinking about the devastating fires that ripped through Yellowstone Park a few years ago, taking out millions of trees and beautiful forest vistas. But visiting the Park a few years after the fires had been quelled, I was struck by how quickly the terrain had been claimed by a completely new ecosystem of meadows, wildflowers and sapling trees. What had been dark and arborial was now open and freewheeling. New habitats, complete with a new set of juggles between prey and the preyed upon, was evident. And it was stunningly beautiful, but in a completely different way.

As naturalists have reminded us many times, there are larger arcs at work in the world, larger than our individual life times and wider than our narrowly focused view of things.

Postscript on the closing of the Rose Art Museum, which I have been following closely all week: The Boston Globe reported that Brandeis will close the museum but will not sell off the art collection as previously announced. I should know more once I’ve had a chance to talk to Marty Krauss, Brandeis provost and a friend.

From Elatia Harris:

The general crisis cannot but be reflected in the arts, which have seen enough commoditization to be especially vulnerable. Unfortunately, the art world takes everything crazy about casino capitalism and distills it, so that the backlash against what Damien Hirst and the Chapmans can be seen to stand for may be very harmful across the boards.

At the best of times, fewer than one percent of American college graduates with a BFA or MFA in any discipline under the Fine Arts heading are making a living doing what they studied and got credentialed to do — writers writing, dancers dancing, etc. Fewer than twenty percent of same make a living doing anything associated with their disciplines — painters teaching art, artists doing graphic design, dancers teaching aerobics. Those were not, at the level of public policy, considered troubling statistics when there was prosperity in the land, yet they reflect the devaluation of the arts, and their economic irrelevancy in all but a handful of stellar cases, as accurately as a drastic NEA budget cut for 2009, or the sudden closing of a small museum.

Does it take wide-scale struggle to throw light on how the arts have become a zero-sum game? Not an esteemed part of national life expressing what is unique about ourselves, but a special hellish corner of national life where — even more than elsewhere — there is either obscene reward or extinction.

In 1987, the art market underwent a substantial correction. There had been artists getting, for one painting, “entry level” prices that resembled an annual income, and most of those artists did not survive the correction to enjoy an Act Two. This time around, I hope some of what’s wrong can be addressed at a level above that of discouraging silliness by making sure the ranks of high-earning artists — so offensive they are, in hard times! — are properly winnowed.

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