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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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audience

An essential tension exists in the making and the marketing of expression—be it books, plays, paintings, music, newspapers or blogs. Finding an audience is an essential step, but it is not as simple as the usual quantifying approach suggests. One of the big ideas in the Internet space over the last five years is Chris Anderson’s Long Tail and his claim that this was a delivery system that could put you in touch with the “right” audience, wherever they are. I subscribe to Anderson’s point of view but there are lots of other factors in that process that are being played out across so many fields. Here’s an excellent piece by Douglas McLennan on his blog diacritical that articulates some of those issues:

A movie studio exec once told me that if it were true that Hollywood was only interested in making money, the studios would have long ago ditched what they were doing and made porn. Huge money in porn, apparently. Who knew?

Much as it’s easy to dismiss the moguls for chasing money, there is an aesthetic at work. And much as it’s important to have an eye on the bottom line, to succeed over the long term, it’s rarely good business to stay focused only there.

This is especially true on the internet, where publishers can track exactly what people are reading. When Salon.com first launched 15 years ago it had a terrific culture section. Music and book and art reviews, essays, an amazing literary travel section. Salon had lots of money early on and it built a sophisticated tracking system that could tell exactly what readers were reading.

When Salon got into financial difficulty, it increasingly (and unsurprisingly) focused on stories that got more traffic. Editors discovered that any headline that had a sexual reference got a spike in readers, even if the story wasn’t about sex. Soon the headlines were a spicy bubbling brew of them. Eventually much of the culture coverage melted away.

It’s easy to fall into the stats/data trap. Most new bloggers I’ve known get enslaved by their stat counters. They’re reading me in Bangkok! In Peru! Pretty cool! It’s quickly apparent which kinds of stories “sell” and which don’t. As a publisher of blogs at ArtsJournal, it’s easy to see what blogs get traffic and which don’t.

At some newspapers, if a story hits the home page and it doesn’t immediately get clicks it gets pulled from prominence, sometimes in as little as 10 minutes. At some newspapers, the ability to track readers through a site ends up driving the news product. So you have sections full of reader-submitted pet pictures and navigation architecture that values traffic over important stories.

Most arts organizations learned long ago that following the crowd doesn’t necessarily lead to sustained success. Surveying the audience you have gets answers from the audience you have, not those you’d like to have. Program only for the audience you have and you set up a feedback loop of diminishing returns, attrition ensuring erosion.

In the old production model, artists created and audiences consumed; newspapers reported and readers read. Interaction 1.0 was a conversation up/down in which the audience talked back to the artist or newspaper. Interaction 2.0 is the artist or news organization attracting an audience around content and making it possible for that audience not just to talk back to the artist but to interact with one another. Everyone’s there – initially at least – because of the content, but they’re loyal because of the community.

Which makes it even more important to be clear what kind of community you’re trying to build. Most newspaper comment sections are crap because editors don’t take care in curating them or developing the community who comments. They let traffic drive content rather than content drive traffic, and as a result they don’t have audience they wish they had. Arts organizations fall into the same trap if they plunge into social networking without being clear what kind of community they’re trying to build. The goal can’t just be numbers. Otherwise, just make porn.

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Ganesha, festooned with the dried flowers of a Hawaiian lei, in my studio

Holland Cotter wrote a piece over the weekend in the New York Times on the state of the art world, The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art! This article was not unlike about 20 others on the same topic that I’ve read over the last few months, from UK publications like the Guardian to art rags like Art Forum. It is a major topic everywhere you turn these days, the overnight collapse of the world’s most overheated art market.

It is a peculiar place from which to watch this massive imploding, a vantage point that I share with a number of cohorts and friends as well: Artists who are basically DIY small business proprietors. We’re the ones who do it all, on our own. We do our own R&D as well as making, marketing, promoting, distributing, inventorying, funding and accounting. We’re the small subsistence farmers who watch while international commodity traders collude in the agribusiness of corporate-run mega farms.

It’s not as 19th century pastoral as that metaphor might suggest, just as the small organic specialty farm has found a new “heirloom” or “artisanal” cubby hole that makes their survival going forward viable. I have a few thousand clients who have purchased my paintings. Most of them have come back and purchased more than one piece. But my operation is definitely artisanal rather than streamlined, handmade versus production-savvy. And while business is slow for just about everyone and everything these days, my modus operandi hasn’t really been disrupted by an economy that went square wave up and then, in a free fall of staggering proportions, went square wave down. For me it is still chop wood, carry water.

Reinventing art education as Holland Cotter has proposed (see the excerpt below) is one of many ideas I’ve seen proposed. But I don’t think the problems we are facing in the visual arts world are rooted in failures of the art school continuum, nor can they be addressed by shifting the emphasis of pedagogy in the art profession. Just as there will always be very badly written books that sell well, there will always be a category of art that is promoted for no other reason than profitability and the lure of greed. Just as I need publishing (be it self-styled or institutionalized) to also bring out great books that leave me altered forever, I likewise need enough breathing room in this small corner of the art economy to make my work, find a receptive audience and keep on keepin’ on.

And on that prospect, anything is possible.

From Holland Cotter’s article:

Which brings us to the present decade, held aloft on a wealth-at-the-top balloon, threatening to end in a drawn-out collapse. Students who entered art school a few years ago will probably have to emerge with drastically altered expectations. They will have to consider themselves lucky to get career breaks now taken for granted: the out-of-the-gate solo show, the early sales, the possibility of being able to live on the their art.

It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Art schools can change too. The present goal of studio programs (and of ever more specialized art history programs) seems to be to narrow talent to a sharp point that can push its way aggressively into the competitive arena. But with markets uncertain, possibly nonexistent, why not relax this mode, open up education?

Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today.

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.

This posting is an addendum to the one below about the closing of the Rose Art Museum. From the New York Times on Monday, Robin Pogrebin’s piece highlights the issues regarding support for the arts on a national level.

As the Obama administration tackles the challenge of shoring up the economy through infusions of capital and job creation, cultural leaders are urging the president not to forget arts institutions, which are also reeling from the market downturn.

“We wanted to make sure arts were not left out of the recovery,” said Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a national lobbying group. “The artist’s paycheck is every bit as important as the steelworker’s paycheck or the autoworker’s paycheck.”

For the moment eyes are largely turned to the National Endowment for the Arts. Dana Gioia, the outgoing chairman, officially stepped down on Inauguration Day and President Obama has not yet named his successor.

In Congress the American Recovery and Reinvestment bill, approved last week by the House Appropriations Committee, includes a $50 million supplement for the N.E.A. to distribute directly to nonprofit arts organizations and also through state and local arts agencies.

The bill is expected to go to the full House for a vote on Wednesday before proceeding to the Senate. It could reach the president’s desk as early as mid-February, an N.E.A. spokeswoman said.

Arts groups, meanwhile, are urging federal departments like Transportation or Labor to factor culture into their financing. A transportation enhancement program, for example, could pay artists for related public artworks; through the Labor Department displaced arts professionals could receive new training to stay in the work force. “Every one of these places is a vehicle through which the money is going to flow, and we want to make sure the arts is part of it,” Mr. Lynch said.

Much of the clamor arises from anticipation stirred by Mr. Obama’s campaign remarks about the importance of the arts. One of the few candidates with an arts platform, he called for a young “artist corps” to work in low-income schools and neighborhoods; affordable health care and tax benefits for artists; and efforts at cultural diplomacy, like dispatching artist-ambassadors to other countries.

The president is considering the establishment of an arts-and-culture portfolio within the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, according to Bill Ivey, who served as the administration’s transition-team leader for the arts and humanities, including the future of the N.E.A., the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Some cultural figures have even been calling for a cabinet-level arts czar. In a radio interview last fall on WNYC’s “Soundcheck,” the music impresario Quincy Jones said that when he next spoke to Mr. Obama he would “beg for a secretary of arts” along the lines of the culture ministers in many European countries. His comment inspired an online petition that now has more than 199,500 signatures.

Americans for the Arts has proposed appointing a senior-level administration official with an arts portfolio, along the lines of Leonard Garment of the Nixon administration, August Heckscher under John F. Kennedy or Roger L. Stevens under Lyndon B. Johnson. “Someone to connect the dots,” Mr. Lynch said. “We don’t have that right now.”

But what arts executives are most eager for, they say, is additional direct financing and a president who sends the message that art is important. The country’s 100,000 nonprofit arts groups employ some six million people and contribute $167 billion to the economy annually, Mr. Lynch said. “I don’t think of this as a bailout for the arts,” he added. “It’s an economic investment in the arts.”

Funds for the N.E.A. have declined to $145 million in fiscal year 2009 from $176 million in 1992. Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, said she would seek more in the next fiscal year. “I’m more encouraged than I’ve been in a very long time,” she said of Mr. Obama. “He has said many times how important the arts are to him.”

Mr. Ivey is director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University and a former N.E.A. chairman. “There has never been an administration that looked at the cultural agencies as a partner in advancing big, overarching policy objectives,” he said in an interview. “That’s a real unfulfilled opportunity and I think this administration is poised to do a better job.”

On Jan. 15 Mr. Ivey convened a meeting of about 20 arts organizations at the transition team’s headquarters in Washington. Among those attending were the chief executives of groups like the Association of Art Museum Directors, Chorus America and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.

“We were invited to talk about our ideas and hopes for the endowment,” said Andrea Snyder, the executive director of Dance/USA, a national service organization. “It was more than just, ‘We need more money.’ ”

She said that she hoped the N.E.A. would focus on issues like health insurance for artists, “how we support individual artists in this country, and reframing the importance of the arts in this society.”

Since a Jan. 16 report in The Los Angeles Times much of the speculation about the agency’s next chairman has focused on Michael C. Dorf, a lawyer who served on Mr. Obama’s arts-policy team during the campaign and was an adviser to the transition. The newspaper described him as the leading candidate for the post. Mr. Dorf declined to comment on his candidacy.

As special counsel to the long-serving Illinois Congressman Sidney R. Yates, who died in 2000, Mr. Dorf helped develop national policies on arts financing. During the culture wars of the 1990s he advised an independent commission that sought to preserve the N.E.A. after accusations that it had supported some projects that ran counter to patriotic or moral ideals.

Other possible N.E.A. candidates mentioned include Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center; Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Minnesota state Senator Richard J. Cohen; or a return of Mr. Ivey. It is unclear when the administration will make a selection, though some arts professionals said they expected a decision in the next few weeks.

Arts groups said that they would seek to drive home the idea that culture is an economic engine. “Arts jobs are jobs,” said Marc A. Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America. “We see opera companies cutting health care, administrative staff — these people are taxpayers and rent payers and mortgage payers, just like every other employee.”

For many, the inaugural celebrations and the inauguration itself — with Michelle Obama and her daughters dancing to pop music at the Kids’ Inaugural, and Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and others performing at the swearing-in — demonstrated a new administration’s recognition that culture matters.

Arts professionals sense that the Obama administration is “open and desirous of partnering with the arts community,” said Jesse Rosen, president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras.

“That bodes well for what will happen next,” he said. “It’s important that our voices be heard.”