The NEA Might Fund Individual Artists Again. But Should It?

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John Wenzel of the Denver Post caused a stir last week ago with a piece suggesting that the National Endowment for the Arts is gearing up to return to the business of funding individual artists.

(Last week, the agency also received excellent reviews for the way in which it is supporting military families — and rightly so.)

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Trouble is, I’m unsure that’s what Wenzel wrote.

From my viewpoint, Wenzel wrote a gloomy assessment of the likelihood of such grants coming down the pike.

Perhaps what we’re dealing with is a sign of the times. Perhaps the arts, to say nothing of individual artists, are so bereft of adequate philanthropic support that even the tiniest hope of elevated grant levels coming from the NEA is enough to make people go all atwitter — and to Twitter, surely, about their atwitter-ness.

Wenzel’s story is pegged to the fact that Rocco Landesman, the admirably swashbuckling chair of the federal agency, has “openly floated the notion of reinstating those individual artist fellowships” — that the issue, in other words, “is not dead”:

“In many ways, the question of supporting individual artists is the question for any chairman of the NEA,” Landesman said via e-mail.

Quite true. Wenzel, however, does not identify concrete signs of positive movement in this regard. (Don’t worry, I’m getting to the point of the headline of this post very shortly.) There is, for example, this stand-alone graph:

“There’s no question that funding can provide valuable assistance for artists, but it raises some very difficult questions about censorship,” said former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, who served during the early ’90s culture wars. “For example, if you go ahead with funding of that kind, do you fund everything, or do you limit it in some way? And if you limit, what do you limit? What’s obscene to one person might not be to someone else.”

And there is this:

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….Persuading lawmakers and arts administrators to champion increased NEA funding might seem irresponsible to those focusing on the economy, security and other pressing issues.

“It’s really a touchy area,” said Shannon Daut, deputy director of the Denver-based Western States Arts Federation….

Daut, who was in the audience during a recent Landesman speech touting the return to artist fellowships, sees an uphill battle for the idea.

“…if you just look at the political reality, it would be a huge struggle to get a congressional act passed. They’re tackling much, much bigger things than this right now.”

And there is this:

…with an economic malaise lingering over much of the country, the political will to wade back into those waters may be nonexistent….

“The thing [Landesman] doesn’t bring up is that to change this (funding situation) it would take a congressional act,” said Daut. “That would complicate things quite a bit in our political environment. I know that Rocco is a horse-trading, gambling kind of guy. He’s got a bold vision for this agency, but the big discussions (in the arts) right now are centered on how the arts revitalize communities and job creation.”

So now let’s get to the big, big question: Should the NEA get into the individual-artist funding game again at all? Or is it an absolute article of faith that is not to be questioned?

I fear that individual artists (though not Karen Finley) will suffer an apoplectic fit by my asking this, which would be unfortunate if true. Still, if, as Wenzel suggests, Landesman is laying the groundwork for Congress to revisit the issue, then would the arts community not do well to have the discussion, to debate the pros and cons honestly, with passion and with reason?

On the one hand — as Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, is quoted as saying in the piece — grants to individual artists from the NEA would infuse new energy into the lives of those “used to not having much money.” As Wenzel himself phrases it, even though NEA funding accounts for a microscopic .0033% of the collective budgets of the 100,000 arts nonprofits in the US, it nonetheless provides “dividends when the artist reinvests back into the community.” Only the most radical of the radical right-wing teabag bigot Rand Paul wackos could dispute this.

On the other hand — and truly meaning no disrespect to Wenzel — but Lynch’s quote seems rather shoehorned into the narrative that Wenzel is hawking. NEA funding, “goes out to thousands and thousands of arts organizations who are used to not having much money,” Lynch says. This is saying something substantially different from what I think Wenzel hoped Lynch would say — that NEA grants to individual artists would help “thousands and thousands of artists who are used to not having much money.” But that’s not what Lynch said.

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Let’s create a few hypothetical situations and see where they lead us.

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Let’s assume the 2010 elections unfurl so that the political exists in 2011 for Congress to revisit authorizing the NEA to give grants to individual artists. This is rosy, but work with me. Does this also presuppose a funding increase — and the political will to do so? Hard to imagine that one. What it means, then, is that there will be even more mouths to feed out of a nest that hasn’t grown. Which theater groups, which orchestras, which dance troupes, which visual arts groups will be willing to accept smaller NEA grants so some individual artists can receive $3,000 — or $30,000? The response to this argument is that tiny fractions of tiny fractions of tiny fractions don’t matter — but they do.

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Let’s assume the NEA can still somehow squeeze more grants out of a pot of money equal in size to the one that exists right now, or one that is even slightly larger. How will the granting process for individuals be shielded from politics? Who believes, if the midterm elections go well for the Republicans, that the pro-arts, pro-individual funding sentiment will grow across the nation? Who believes, if the midterm elections don’t go well for the Republicans, that any move to reinstate individual funding would not be met with a reigniting of the culture wars? (I warned about this in early 2009 and I still think it’s inevitable.)

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Let’s assume all the planets align: the NEA is back in the business of awarding grants to individual artists. Would it be more or less effective, or fair, for artist recipients to be well established figures in their disciplines? Or should they be newcomers, or relative newcomers? Who decides?

My instinct is that individual grants are not going to happen, despite Landesman’s good faith efforts. I know his heart is in the right place. I just don’t see the political will for it to happen. More than that, I’m not convinced that NEA grants to individuals would provide a bigger economic bang for the buck than increasing grants to organizations. All I hear is that nonprofit arts organizations desperately need funding for general operating expenses. Until a better model for funding is developed, is it the best strategy to neglect our nonprofit infrastructure even more than we already have?