Dalouge Smith: Decentralize the Arts Via the NEA? Um, Sorta.

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normanrockwell-piano1I’ve now read Dalouge Smith’s post “Is the NEA a Home Substitute?” (on his blog, Dog Days) about four times now.

Not that I’m speaking in the pejorative about it, but it took a minute to really sink in.

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Smith’s thesis, advanced in response to Arts Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. and the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Linda Ronstadt and Josh Groban testifying before Congress for more NEA funding, finds irony in the fact that these figures demand greater federal arts funding…

while telling stories of learning to love music in informal settings such as their own homes in the midst of their families

Smith, who is President & CEO of San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory and Chairman of the San Diego Regional Arts and Culture Coalition, then raises an interesting point. If the NEA being seen — as most arts advocates do — as a kind of Mt. Olympus of the American imprimatur for arts funding, isn’t that tantamount to economic (and maybe aesthetic) centralization? There is the question, Smith says…

of reversing the cultural trend away from a small group of professional artists producing for the consumption and enjoyment of the majority is central to advocating for the arts today. We need these professionals but we also need a broader amateur and family art world. I’d love to see us talk about reaching multiple generations simultaneously so the creative experience returns to daily life.

Certainly Smith has a point: Many families incorporated a love of the arts, including attempts, no matter how flimsy or fleeting, to inculcate in children some proficiency in one or more of the arts, as part of their rearing. How does the NEA honor and, indeed, perpetuate that tradition? Well, let’s be clear: it doesn’t.

But also, what about those of us for whom artistic pursuits was not necessarily an integral part of life? Just to be clear, this assumption that every family can afford a piano, to take the example so glorified in the Norman Rockwell image above, is awfully, um, white of Smith. If he is suggesting that the NEA — or the federal government — should be in the business of creating programs or policies that buttress the inculcation of artistic achievement and arts appreciation in American families, that’s interesting. But perhaps the NEA, rather than propping up a flawed business model in the nonprofit sphere, could ramp up its efforts at access, too.

In other words, are we saying let’s use the NEA to decentralize the idea of public arts support, rather than participate in the ongoing hagiography of the organization? Discuss.