Advice to the Next Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts

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It could be Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

It could be Ben Cameron, Program Director, Arts, at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

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It could be Mary Schmidt Campbell, the Dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and the former Vice Chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

If President Obama wants to tweak Congress, it could be Robert L. Lynch, President and CEO of Americans for the Arts.

If the President wants to soothe Congress, it could be one of the dwindling number of moderate Republicans — for example, Jim Leach, currently chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and, before that, a 15-term member of the US House of Representatives from Iowa.

It could be an artist — a Gustavo Dudamel, a Cindy Sherman, a Twyla Tharp.

It could be a business person with a known love of the arts — there are lots of those, especially in the philanthropic world.

It could be anyone who could replace Rocco Landesman as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. And it will be someone. Possibly someone unexpected.

And so the question must be: Which critical attributes must the next chair of the NEA possess? Since we know President Obama is an inveterate CFR reader (if only he’d write comments!), we propose that the person he nominates embrace and evangelize some variation on these four ideas:

1) The NEA must reimagine the purpose — and effect — of its grants.
Late last year, the NEA announced more than 832 grants, totaling more than $23 million, going to cultural groups and individuals and determined by a “rigorous peer-review panel process.” On the face of it, what’s to criticize? Nonprofit cultural groups need money, and whether you ask them or not, most of them will never stop stressing that a grant from the NEA confers a special status, a kind of faux federal validation stamp, one they presumably use to leverage more public and private giving and positive PR.

What’s rarely whispered within the propagandistic echo chamber of the nonprofit cultural world is how many grants that tend to go to groups and individuals who are, by any reasonable measure, entrenched in the arts firmament, at the local, state or national levels. No matter how “rigorous” and ostensibly objective the NEA’s peer-review process may try to be, to suggest there is not a subtle, inherent bias, even a slight one, toward older, more “established” institutions is to believe the tooth fairy left you a quarter under your pillow back when you were 9. If you even only mildly agree with the second principle on our list below — that the NEA ought to be used, at least in part, to encourage entrepreneurialism — then you must agree that one of the new NEA chair’s priorities ought to be a re-examination of how grants are distributed and, equally important, to whom and why. We would take that process one step further, to include a debate as to whether there ought to be a kind of sunset provision built into the system. In this scenario, older, more established, more financially secure, robust, powerful, thought-leading groups would age out of contention, rather than regularly and needlessly dominating the field of contenders. For that giant suckage sound you keep hearing continues to be the air — air forever vacuumed up by all the influential and widely recognizable institutions too often to the detriment of younger groups hungry to climb the ranks. Is it not an unfair playing field when a 30-year-old institution with a $3M budget must compete against a 10-year-old institution with a $30M budget? Perhaps it is — perhaps that’s the way it goes — perhaps that’s the way of the market. Well, if that is the case, then isn’t longevity, not budget, where the leveling of the playing field must occur? Simply put: If your institution can’t make it financially by a certain time — 10 years, 20 years, 40 years, 80 years, pick the time that seems logical, sensible to you — how will a grant from NEA turn that around? This is a conservative, survival-of-the-fittest conceit that has the added benefit of being true.

As one small and admittedly very New York-centric example, look at this list and let’s tackle this from an opposing point of view — not from the point of view of one of those groups eager to rise through the ranks and therefore invested in wanting to level the playing field, but from the point of view of a nonprofit cultural group that has enjoyed, and continues to enjoy major, universally obvious success. Let’s ask ourselves if Manhattan Theatre Club, founded in 1970, really would fall apart if the NEA did not, last year, award it $50K to “support the development of new work and playwrights.” This is not to pick on MTC, which is having an especially fine season right now. This is to use MTC as an example of the longevity-stratification dynamic that calls into question the value system behind the current granting ethos of the NEA.

According to Charity Navigator, for the fiscal year that ended in June 2011, MTC’s total revenue was $20,620,742 and total functional expenses was $19,591,298. (Note that administrative expenses totaled $1,492,301 and that the compensation to artistic director Lynne Meadow was an eye-popping $411,482.) MTC operates the Samuel Freedman Theatre on Broadway; it has produced plays and musicals at New York City Center since time immemorial; it has a subscriber base of about 20,000; and the company’s “many laurels” include 18 Tonys, six Pulitzer Prizes, 48 Obies and 30 Drama Desk awards.

Certainly the $50K from the NEA is nice. Certainly it confers artistic and administrative validation, as noted earlier, and certainly MTC uses that validation expertly to cultivate more public and private philanthropy and press. We do, like it or not, however, still live in tight fiscal times, and we will continue to do so for years to come. We assert that the new NEA chair must perform a cost-benefit analysis to the grant programs run by the agency, and as part of that analysis ask itself this question: Is each grant fiscally crucial, that is to say essential and existential, to the institution? We realize we are singling out this one company, and again it’s strictly for purposes of using an example — and in this case, we’d argue that the $50K grant was and is not financially crucial. We’d argue, moreover, that at 43 MTC ought to be capable of sustaining itself — and is capable of sustaining itself — and therefore could and should to be capable of identifying the $50K from elsewhere. Let it go to smaller, younger, leaner institutions, let it go to those that do not produce shows in a Broadway playhouse, that do not boast a five-figure subscriber (and donor) base, that do not have eight-figure annual budget, that do not pay their top executives nearly a half-million in salary.

“Whoa!”
“That’s unfair!”
“That’s unworkable!”
“That’s unreasonable!”
“That’s insupportable!”
“That’s politically and perhaps even legally impossible!”
“Let MTC compete for NEA dollars.”
“Let the peer-review process prove to play out as a model of professional probity.”

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Yes, we know all the counterarguments, all the vociferous tut-tut-tutting, all the pie-in-the-sky what-if-ing, and we do not dismiss them. Indeed, let’s agree that each counterargument possesses merit and even may prevail within the NEA’s thinking. Should the new NEA chair — in lieu of a sunset provision mandating that cultural organizations may no longer be eligible for grants after 10, 20, 40, 80 years in business — instead advocate for a legacy category designed to link established groups with those now emerging, with allocations just for that? We say yes. After 10, 20, 40, 80 years of receiving public arts funding, is it not time for those institution to give back? For arts organizations to claim that public dollars remain necessary, not nice, in order to validate their work is completely preposterous. Not to mention disingenuous. The new NEA chair should acknowledge that fact that think about the agency’s grant programs in this light.

And even if none of these points or ideas have any industry currency whatsoever, there does seem to be growing consensus that the NEA’s current approach to granting is not consonant with current trends in terms of how artists make, and how think about, work. If this is true — and it is — then the new NEA chair must approach the question holistically, and the dynamic we have outlined above must be thought about, not ignored.

Could Michael Kaiser save the nation — or at least the NEA — by mixing business acumen with the usual received wisdom?

2) The NEA should preach entrepreneurialism as complementary to, not inimical to, the nonprofit business model.
Can we be blunt? Probably 90-99% of Republicans elected to Congress since 2010 believe the federal government has no role to play in cultural funding; at least three times in the last three years they have made concerted, often ugly attempts to consign the NEA to the historical ash-heap. We would argue that “Tea Party Republicans” is redundant; these folks are deeply, profoundly threatened by art. Period. Art represents a fear-inducing flowering of free speech to these delusional delinquents, and in that they perceive a direct threat to the conservative values upon which their power is derived. This dynamic will not change with the 113th Congress. This dynamic may never change in our lifetimes. So if we are to protect and preserve the NEA in an environment of toxic political sludge, the new NEA chair would be wise to preach the value of entrepreneurialism — the same entrepreneurial spirit that the right-wing evangelizes as their freedom-fried raison d’etre.

We do not advocate embracing entrepreneurialism as a prelude to eliminating federal arts funding. We believe those fearing this result are themselves delusional about the political pitfalls that lie ahead. We believe the new NEA chair may inoculate the agency by turning the right-wing’s philosophy against them. Liberals dislike triangulation — they don’t trust it. But it’s a legitimate way to neutralize conservative antipathy to the NEA, and we feel the new NEA chair should regard it as a useful tactic.

Why else bother? If the new NEA chair embraced the entrepreneurial gospel, he or she would build on the “Art Works” campaign that now-former chair Rocco Landesman devised — one which should have been implemented more aggressively and comprehensively. Such embracing, moreover, would acknowledge the vast economic damage that was caused by the recession, which is to say it would finally admit that there is a clear, ongoing need for cultural organizations to really come to terms with a permanently scarred and altered fiscal landscape, one in which government philanthropy is never, ever going to grow, one in which earned income is never, ever going to be less important than it is now. Let the new NEA chair be viewed as a champion of business; let the new NEA chair make it crystal clear that nonprofit cultural institutions are businesses. Right-wing hostility to the NEA won’t vanish, but it might diminish. Anything less than a direct confrontation to the right-wing antipathy is, we would argue, an abdication of professional responsibility.

3) Bid adieu to states whose governors and/or legislatures really hunger to gut their arts agencies, thereby putting their NEA funding in jeopardy.
Let’s think long-term — not about whatever victories may have been won in 2011 or 2012 after an extended fight, but of the battles that are still likely to come in 2013, 2014 and beyond. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and the most reactionary state legislature in history in that state probably still wants out of arts funding. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley likely assumes that her arts funding vetoes won’t be overridden in perpetuity. States like Wisconsin, Texas and New Jersey remain more likely to snip arts funding than add to it. All three states have Republican governors who, we think, would not be opposed to eliminating all arts appropriations if it served them politically. What often stands in the way as a last line of defense? The loss of matching NEA funds. Well, we say, enough of that. Enough.

At the same time that the new NEA chair should preach entrepreneurism as complementary to, not inimical to, the nonprofit model, the NEA chair should make clear to the public — to the President, even — that the federal government should not fight for the continuation of state arts agencies in places where local leaders exhibit so much antagonism toward their existence. Is this cruel? You could argue that it is and you would not be wrong. But it is time for these stupid local political wars to end — and for the field to acknowledge that the NEA was never contemplated to function as Custer’s Last Stand. Cruel as it may sound, we say just give the voters what they voted for when they voted for a Brownback or a Haley. Would that be overtly partisan? Yes. Would that disenfranchise those good, decent, besieged pro-arts advocates in those states who are valiantly again and again fighting the good fight? Yes. Would such an attitude be read as a deeply divisive political gesture on a scale that we have never expected of a chair of the NEA? You bet. Would it, however, acknowledge a kind of political reality? You bet. So, Kansas wants out? South Carolina wants out? Fine. Goodbye. Let’s give federal arts dollars to those states that want it. And make artists demand that their leaders who think otherwise recalibrate their positions. Yes, let’s encourage artists to move to states that value the social, economic and moral impact of the arts and let those where it is not valued suffer from their stupidity. (We impart the same message the anti-Obama racists yearning for secession: “Bye!”) This is called hardball, folks, and liberals usually suck at it. We prefer to think of it as “stealing the ball,” as changing the terms of the game. A new NEA chair can do this — and should.

Give to the NEA? No, really: give to the NEA!

4) Advocate for the NEA to be an endowment.
You all remember this. The NEA is not an actual endowment. The next NEA chair should campaign for the agency to be transformed into a public-private entity, one empowered to aggressively fundraise. Now, we absolutely understand that 99.9% of the field finds this idea abhorrent. The field will laugh, scoff at it, pick it apart and pronounce it dumb and counterproductive. Well, here’s some news: the field is a septic tank of received wisdom. And by that we mean that everyone is really out for themselves and whatever scraps of support they can get. Worse the field is fully on board with whatever everyone else seems fully on board with, and there is no shortage of persnickety preening peacocks whose careers are predicated on the preservation of the status quo. This idea, then, is not meant for the 99.9%. It is directed to the .1% who question whether our federal arts-funding agency in its current state and functionality has a) outlived its effectiveness, b) become a tool of DC partisanship, c) failed to spur creative or business innovation, or d) raised the question of whether another mechanism of arts support could better help the field. Isn’t it possible that in a reasonable, truly objective analysis of our federal arts-funding agency in its current state and functionality we may conclude that there is something amiss with its approach, something flawed in its philosophy, something unglued in its operations, something meriting improvement? Is there no other solution to the NEA’s problems than the if-only-we-had-higher-appropriations trope? Our instincts tell us that this is so. Our instincts tell us that the quicker the NEA is decoupled from the federal teat, the faster it may be, in fact, a beacon we can follow, cherish and invest in anew. Our instincts tell us to free the NEA from the bile of 21st century politics. Our instincts tell us that as interesting and well-meaning as the NEA’s programs are, they are designed to offend no one, and in that determination to offend no one, it has become antithetical to what the arts really needs? Our instincts tell us that if you’re only philosophy is to keep enemies off the retaining wall, the war itself has been lost. Our instincts tell us that there must be other ways to be 50-state (or 56-territory) grant-making organization. Our instincts tell us that a one-time appropriation of sufficient size — $2 billion — would allow the NEA to move toward becoming a truly independent entity. Board composition, governance, grant-making authority, yearly costs, monetary distributions — these are all, true, a list of questions needing answers. But so long as the NEA is dependent on the grace and favor of the Congress, the cultural universe will be unstable. It’s no way to run a railroad. A new NEA chair must be honest about that or else be deluded.

To restate: We recognize that every nonprofit cultural organization will cry “foul” over this idea. They will claim they shouldn’t have to compete with the NEA in the philanthropic marketplace. That is a legitimate fear. Just understand, then, the alternative is the status quo: periodic resurgences of the cultural wars, and a lurking fear that one day, the anti-arts crowd really will get their way. We think those are terrible odds to play and we’re not willing to risk it. Are you?