An Open Letter to Acting NEA Chair Mary Anne Carter

As you launch into your new role, here are five things for you to do.

Adj McColl and Mary Anne Carter. Photo: Steve Korn.

Dear Ms. Carter,

No, that photograph is not of you. It is not me, either. It features another Mary Anne Carter, a Seattle-based artist, designer and creative strategist. This Mary Anne Carter is standing alongside Adj McColl; they collaborate on an arts space that aims to be “unpredictable, faggy, experimental, hilarious.”

In any case, congratulations on your appointment as Acting Chairperson of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). This is a position that me and many of my associates in the US arts community hold dear. My name is Shawn Lent and my current professional plate includes serving as a contributing editor here at the Clyde Fitch Report, a social practice dance artist, and a dance educator. Twice I served on the selection panel for NEA grants. Also, as you are a reluctantly labeled “Dance Mom,” you might also find it interesting that I grew up as a “competition kid” in dance; I would love to chat with you about that world sometime.

I am writing to you today because many professionals in the arts, including myself, see you as unqualified due to your lack of experience in the field. That said, as I read more about you and your tenure as Senior Deputy Chairman of the NEA, I have much hope that you fight, and will fight, for public support of the arts. Perhaps, like the legendary Nancy Hanks who also came to your post with no art-making experience, you will find ways to be positively effective by strong-arming Congress and inundating them with piles of convincing letters. Your somewhat outsider perspective could help you and your team achieve new levels of cultural equity, social justice, diversity and inclusion through and in the arts. You might surprise me and my fellow skeptics by influencing new infrastructures for artists, leveraging tax benefits for the arts, and preventing new culture wars. As you launch into this role, I wanted to offer you five recommendations.

Story continues below.

First, conduct a Listening and Learning Tour. Meet rural artists and those in America’s biggest cities. Meet with Muslim and Mormon artists. Meet with students who have their sights set on the commercial arts sector and entertainment. Meet emerging artists who are discovering ways to support themselves within the nonprofit sector. Meet with philanthropists and foundation staff. Meet with retired professional artists and arts educators. Meet with cultural attachés at the State Department. Meet with at least one formal and one underground arts leader in every US state and territory. Meet with Americans for the Arts, and, of course, the entire NEA staff, current and former, as well as the entire staff of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

You might be overwhelmed with all of these potential meetings, so you might want to take a few months to go deeper into your interest area of dance in America. Here is a short list to get you started:

  • Sara Nash, the NEA’s new Director of Dance: Ask what she learned from the Regional Dance Development Initiatives (RDDI) that she led at New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project.
  • Sunil Iyengar, the NEA’s Director of Research and Analysis: Ask where he thinks the NEA’s priorities should be during the Trump administration, based on the data they are seeing and the research they are funding.
  • Onye Ozuzu, Dean of the College of the Arts, University of Florida: Ask how competition dancers and urban/street trained dancers study together in higher education in Chicago. Also ask about her plans for Florida, your home state.
  • Learn about and meet as many of these “20 Change-making US Artists You Should Track During 2018” as possible.

Hear people’s fears; don’t offer solutions or recommendations. As you listen closely, start to process what changes could support their hopes and ideas. Make space for vulnerability and innovation, for yourself and for them.

Story continues below.

2018 Poetry Out Loud National Champion with NEA then Senior Deputy Chairman Mary Anne Carter and Poetry Foundation Program Director Stephen Young. Photo: NEA.

Second, go on a Seeing Tour. See as much live, museum and public art as you possibly can. See and hear local musicians in your neighborhood. Travel and see NIC Kay and Nick Cave. Spend time at the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in NYC, but also at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. Attend a cypher. Attend a quinceañera celebration on Navy Pier in Chicago. And while you’re in Chi-town, let me know and I will show you the arts scene here. See works by arts students and faculty at Red Cloud Indian School on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Back in DC, see GALA Theater and District Community Playback. Ask where your colleagues are presenting and seeing work.

Third, read these:

Story continues below.

Fourth, make a list of why arts education, art-making and US arts funding are unique. How is our system distinct from other countries? What are our current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? Assuming you are well aware of International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA) and global cultural policy, this might be a simple exercise in stepping back from the day-to-day operations to see the macro picture.

Fifth, make art. Take an integrated Bharatnatyam or jazz dance class alongside your daughter, learn to play the oud, write a pantoum poem during a workshop at Split This Rock, or attend a Sip n Paint while making friends with your new neighbors in DC.

As a Dance Mom, you might get an underserved bad rap but you definitely have much needed knowledge and capacities. You know that your child is entitled to a dance education. You fight for that. You drive for that, in more ways than behind the wheel — which I know from experience that you do at high volume. I hope you can harness that drive and sense of entitlement for good, living up to your stated intentions to make the NEA more accessible.

So when your colleague, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, undermines public education, I hope you counter by overfunding arts programming at underfunded public schools. And if — like in March 2017 — President Trump again proposes cutting the NEA completely, I hope you will fight for the agency like a Dance Mom.

Keep pushing for arts experiences to be accessible for everybody, in all Congressional districts. And be inspired by the other Mary Anne Carter whose work “defies stagnance and limitation”; I think you two should definitely meet. That Mary Anne Carter runs a screen print shop with totes that say “This Bitch Face Does Not Rest,” and sashes that read “Don’t Talk to Me.” Both items might come in handy at times with this Congress.

See you at the next Arts Advocacy Day!




Shawn Lent