Here We Go Again: Take Your NEA Battle Cry and Shove It

Talk to the HandEarlier this week I received an email from the Performing Arts Alliance with the subject line: “NEA Takes Huge FY14 Cut: Take Action Today!” My first thought? “Crap, here we go again.” Time to buckle our budget cut seat belts. Batten down the hatches. Punch our fists into the air. Cry how dare they threaten to cut the National Endowment for the Arts’ money and get ready for the endless streams of emails, Facebook posts and tweets.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t. Could there possibly be a way to prevent this from happening time and time again so that we don’t have to “take action” at all?

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On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations announced an Interior and Environment bill that recommends a 19% cut in overall spending. This includes slashing the NEA’s FY14 budget by 49%, from $146 million, where it stands currently, to $75 million. Yes, by all means this is a huge and drastic potential cut if the budget were to reach approval, which is unlikely.

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I’m still scratching my head as to why the NEA is placed in the same federal agency with groups like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Parks Service (NPS), which both have multi-billion dollar annual budgets. And don’t even get me started on something like the enormously bloated national defense budget; compared to the budget for DOD and especially the overall federal budget, a while back Vermont Arts Council’s Alex Aldrich provided a great visual: “If the Federal Budget represented the total mileage between, say, Montpelier and Bennington [a distance of 121 miles], the distance one could travel on just the NEA’s portion of that ‘budget’ would be slightly less than 25 feet.” In other words, an infinitesimal amount. At an Arts Advocacy Day pep rally I attended on Capitol Hill a few years back, a senator — Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa — compared the cost of flying a fighter jet round-trip one time to the entire annual operating budget of the NEA.

You can see how messed up these funding equations are, right?

So yes, once again, here we are. It’s the same old something-awful-might-happen-and-we’ve-got-to-TAKE-ACTION-or-else mentality. I’m a passionate arts advocate and have spent years of my life advocating for many causes, but I’m starting to question why we find ourselves in this place of being threatened at the federal, state and local levels year after year. Why are we always spinning the same arduous wheel? I just don’t have the stomach for traditional scare tactics yet again. Can we think outside of the traditional arts advocacy box?

Step 1: Stop crying wolf and whining
Don’t misunderstand me. All of these take-action arts advocacy groups-like Performing Arts Alliance, Americans for the Arts (where, full disclosure, I am Vice Chair of their Arts Education Council) and various state and city entities-are comprised of incredibly hard-working, passionate people (like me) who care deeply about the cause at hand; they have nothing but the best intentions in mind and do make a difference. Collectively and individually, we’re great at talking and preaching to our choir. But outside cultural circles, our voices are being cancelled out, if they’re even heard at all, because no one wants to listen to a whiner. We’re a whiny bunch. So, no more crying wolf and no more whining, OK?

Step 2: Enough already with email blasts and scare tactics
I don’t believe slamming our government officials with endless cut-and-paste chain emails is the way to go. Other than making those officials experience overflowing email inboxes, is anyone actually tracking this data and the content? Is there any kind of measurable effectiveness at the end of a campaign other than to say, “Hooray, we did it thanks to your support! See you this time next year”?

Facts and figures are surely helpful and crucial when demonstrating impact and need. Americans for the Arts by far does the best job preparing the research with their annual Congressional Arts Handbook. At the end of the day, though, there’s nothing to replace the human connections that ultimately are the meat and bones of an effective advocacy campaign. It’s time to really show up, identify the root causes of why arts and culture continually finds itself in this situation and establish some sustainable safety measures. Being scared into hitting the Capwiz send button every other day, month or year is no longer an adequate answer.

Step 3: Become better storytellers
I believe there can be more effective, more productive ways not just to save the public arts funding that already exists, but to be more creative and innovative in the ways we partner, collaborate and enhance-yes, increase-public arts funding in this country. We’re not all talking about what it is we do and why there is a need. We can’t just expect or rely on government to take care of everything.

Look at Occupy Wall Street; look at Occupy Sandy that mobilized after Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast last year; look at the Clinton Global Initiative on a larger scale. The arts community could learn a lot from other grassroots movements and the social good and tech-startup sectors.

Step 4: Refuse the idea that government has no role in funding culture
As a colleague said to me this week, “We need to be alarmed by what’s coming down the pike in the future more than now. For what’s coming is worse than any proposed slashing of the NEA.” We all know government is broken; let’s rise above that and find a solution that works for what our community really needs. Yes, we must advocate for the NEA. As its slogan describes, “Art Works.” But the task of funding it is only part of a far greater challenge.

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  • If we really want the production and enjoyment of the arts to improve for everyone in this country we need to come to the realization that a) things are much worse than you portray and b) our arts policy advocates are ineffective. Ouch.

    Here is a better analogy how bad things are. The current budget for the NEA is so paltry, so pathetically underfunded that the 2012 appropriation for the agency is less than one new F-35 fighter jet. And the US has order 2000 of them.

    And while I’m sure everyone who works for organizations like Americans For The Arts are caring and hardworking the reality is they have been completely ineffective in stopping our society from backsliding when it comes to our education and appreciation of the value of art in society.

    The oil industry, corporate farms, retail industries, etc. get more of what they want because they know how to politically lobby for it. Art Advocates write Handbooks they hope legislators will read and have advocates send in standardized form letters.
    Arts advocate need to find a real way to, as you suggest, “refuse the idea that government has no role in funding the arts”. Things won’t change until we do.

  • I really appreciate your thoughtful, thorough response to my post Richard. I completely agree with you 100 percent! I only wish others would share our collective sentiments and we could figure out a more powerful and effective way to rally. What will it take to make change happen and who will lead the effort?

  • If you ask me….change will only come about by the artists and if we return to a system where artists are given the power to lead the field.

    Look at every major arts advocacy board along with state and local art organizations and see how many artists sit on the boards? I’m not talking about artists advisory boards but the actual boards who make the decisions. Very few if any.

    The NEA doesn’t give money directly to artists to produce art and engage the public in that art. It’s given to intermediary art organizations to make the decisions.

    Until artists are given the power to lead their own field I don’t see much change happening.

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