What I Got Out of My Lunch with the New NEA Chair

I feared another Scott Pruitt or Betsy DeVos, there only to sabotage their agency. Mary Anne Carter has not gone that route.

Kate Becker, Creative Economy Strategist, Office of the King County Executive; Karen Hanan, Executive Director, Washington State Arts Commission; Mary Anne Carter, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts; and CFR Editor Shawn Lent during a tour of the Amazon Spheres and Arts Lab, August 2019.

In June 2018, President Trump appointed Mary Anne Carter to be Acting Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. The press at the time was not remotely celebratory. I was among the cynics and wrote her an open letter here on The Clyde Fitch Report that was a combination of sassy and respectfully thought-out. Carter responded with reciprocal respect.

In November 2018, Trump formally nominated Carter at the NEA’s 12th Chairman, one potentially coming into the role with little arts experience and questionable political connections. My colleagues and I — skeptical of any Republican nominee in this predominantly liberal space — particularly doubted a person representing an especially abhorrent administration. We would wait and see, hoping she wouldn’t dismantle the agency from the inside out.

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More than a year after my open letter, I heard from a colleague in Seattle that my post had made an impression on Carter and that she was inviting me to meet with her in person, along with a small group. I went, and came to this meeting with my questions and values out front. Carter brought positive energy and authenticity to the table, and I tried to match her. I feared she would be another Scott Pruitt or another Betsy DeVos, each there only to sabotage their agency. Carter has not gone that route. You might say that she has been a positive force. There have been two budget increases since she’s been at the agency, even as the Trump administration has proposed zeroing out the NEA. Carter says that activity has relieved the anxieties of the staff. She has continued US diplomatic representation and collaboration at the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA)’s World Summit on Arts and Culture, and she and her team have visited all 50 states. Last month, the Senate confirmed Carter as Chairman.

I love this job. I think this is the best agency in the federal government.

Carter used those words over lunch. I believe she meant it. I felt her enjoyment of her role and pride in the agency were sincere.

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At the lunch, she also expressed something that raised my eyebrows:

The agency works hard to maintain the confidence of Congress.

Carter told us that when she has an audience of conservative members of Congress or similar ears, she emphasizes how the agency is an example of good governance, with input from constituents and 16 consecutive years of clean audits. At a public meeting in March 2018 in Washington, DC, she said:

The National Endowment for the Arts is one of the best examples of conservative government. That may seem odd, it sure sounds odd, as a few conservatives have challenged the Endowment in past. But the reforms the conservatives spearheaded in the mid-1990s ushered in an era of unrivaled good governance at the agency.

It was clear to me that Carter’s lodestar seems to be stellar management, including clearer outward communications and consistent branding away from the NEA acronym.

What’s less clear is Carter’s view of the arts as provocateur and radical voice, as the artistic exercise of First Amendment rights as evidence of active citizenship. I do not believe Carter answered my question on the lessons of the culture wars of those times she mentioned. On a related note, anti-elitism is often important to Carter’s audiences. In that same public meeting, she stated,

“I often hear, Oh ,your agency funds elitists. Mm-hmm, let me give you an example of some of those so-called elitists that we fund.”

She went on to elaborate on funding sensory-friendly performances for audiences with autism or sensory-integration disorders, and on artist residencies in rural nursing homes throughout Kentucky, and on performers with cognitive, emotional, intellectual and physical disabilities. She emphasized that 40% of the NEA’s funding goes to small and medium-sized organizations, benefiting those that otherwise might not have access to arts programs, often in high-poverty neighborhoods. The Creative Forces: Military Healing Network program, along with a proposed increase for creative arts therapies funding in both the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, is another poster child of the type of non-elitist arts and culture that political conservatives can get behind.

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At our lunch, Carter was open about her passion for the arts in the personal stories of her family members. “The arts are not a luxury in my family,” she said. “They’re a necessity.”

As she sees it, most everyone can agree on the importance of the arts; that, even in a profoundly polarized country, arts and culture stand as bipartisan. Yet she, her staff and the field face a ritualized threat of extinction. At the lunch, Carter stated her thoughts: “There’s a philosophical difference between public and private dollars funding the arts.” She added:

Can’t private dollars replace public dollars? The simple answer is no. The top 1,000 private foundations don’t provide art funding to 65% of the nation’s counties.

Carter noted that the NEA currently funds arts initiatives in all 435 congressional districts, approximately 65% of applicants, and 55% of proposals recommended by review panels. She believes there is room for growth in the agency’s grant-making, but she has her hands tied legally when advocating or lobbying for increased appropriations. Also, by law, 40% of the NEA’s budget goes to state arts agencies; she seemed less confident in how the impact of those dollars is amplified.

Here’s what I also didn’t hear much from Carter on: the role of the NEA in cultural policy leadership; the arts and criminal justice reform; and the merits of the arts themselves, as opposed to only the economic impact of the arts, or the effectiveness of arts-integrated learning, or the effectiveness of creative arts therapies.

Carter did make clear her emphasis on accessibility — not just to the arts, but to the agency itself. The National Council on the Arts holds three meetings a year and is now holding at least one of them outside of DC. (In 2018 they went to Charleston, WV, and in 2019 they had a three-day visit in Detroit, MI. Next year is TBD.)

Another change implemented, Carter said, has been in grant-making; the agency used to wait for a member of Congress to ask for a grants workshop, which meant they ended up going to the same places too often. Now the agency, she says, is proactive in its outreach: Carter says it’s important to get face-to-face contact with as many applicants as possible. One can hope that this is being done intentionally — as steps toward diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice within, and via, the arts.

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I am grateful to Carter for her time and conversation. She reached out and listened. She remembered the contents of my letter. She provided a quote of support for an upcoming project involving refugee/migrant artists in Chicago. As a “dance mom,” she is thinking more critically about systems and choices. Carter might be a good fit for these troubling times with this troubling administration, as she knows how to play to her audiences and work both sides of the political divide in service to the arts. Plus she’s surrounded by fantastic staff and, by all accounts, listens to them. As for the current Council members, their terms all expired in 2014, 2016 or 2018 and they will continue to serve until their replacements are confirmed by the Senate. That should be interesting.

I will continue to hold Carter to account, but I see her now. She’s taller than I anticipated.