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Four Questions for the New NEA Chair


This month the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee unanimously voted to approve the nomination of Dr. Jane Chu to become the new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.  Her confirmation by the Senate as a whole is expected soon.  Dr. Chu’s nomination was passed through the committee without any hearings which is unfortunate, not because the nominee is unqualified, but because there are serious questions about the role of the NEA in American arts.  The Senate HELP committee missed an important opportunity to take stock of the NEA, to find out what is working, what is not working, and to ask Dr. Chu what steps she will take to fix the problems which exist.

The NEA has been a lightning rod for conservative opposition since its creation.  That opposition has taken different forms over the past 50 years, but in the past year or so a new argument has emerged.  Republican critics of federal arts funding, including this author, have begun to argue that the NEA is essentially a subsidy for the entertainment of the wealthy.   For obvious reasons this idea is absolutely anathema to the liberal supporters of the NEA.  In fact Iowa Senator Tom Harkin directly addressed this argument after Dr. Chu passed through his committee this month.  He said “there are those who think it’s elitist” he went on to describe a jazz program funded by the NEA which brought New jazz artists to Iowa, “they had programs that reached out to schools in rural Iowa.  That wasn’t elitist at all. It was responding to kids that didn’t have any knowledge of jazz. Kids in rural areas have been helped greatly by NEA.”  But is Harkin’s example really indicative of the NEA’s work?  And in order to bring jazz to the children of Iowa do we really need to line the pockets of non profit corporate executives whose companies produce shows of little interest to working class Americans most of whom can’t afford to attend them anyway?

As Dr. Chu prepares to take the helm there are at least four questions she and the NEA need to address.  The non profit art sector  in this country is failing.  More  and more non profit arts organizations are fighting over fewer and fewer audience members.  Kids with MFAs are leaving top schools only to discover that there is essentially no demand for the skills they have been so carefully trained in.  In fact the NEA itself has spent millions of dollars to study the career choices of art school graduates to find ways those graduates can be infused into the larger marketplace of the “creative class”.   Lost in all of this are working artists.  It is with that in mind that I offer these four questions for Dr. Chu.

Should the NEA Support Infrastructure or Programming?

Outside of Randian Utopias (be they of the Ayn or Paul variety) it is generally accepted that government has a interest in and responsibility for our markets.  The state uses its coercive power to help establish fair and level playing fields.  This is not only for the protection of the providers of goods and services but also for consumers, who benefit from fair competition.  Prior to the creation of the NEA the government’s primary role in the arts was infrastructural.  Civic theaters or band boxes were built, areas of cities were zoned for arts activity, future generations of art patrons were developed in school arts programs.  The actual programming, or creation of the art was outside of the state’s purview.

The NEA changed that.  The NEA gives money directly to approved producers.  It uses the government’s coercive power not to level the playing field, but rather to slant it in favor of approved programming.  The problem with this model is not only that the government has a bad record at choosing shows people want to see, it is also that its funding is not helping most artists.  Giving millions of dollars to a handful of individual theater companies or museums does not address the systemic challenges that artists face.  Rather than paying for one show, the NEA could use its resources to help provide cheap rehearsal space that any producer could take advantage of.  Rather than funding individual shows at museums, the NEA could fund low cost studio space which many visual artists desperately need.

What is the Role of Creative Destruction?

It seems every week there is news of another arts organization running out of money and sliding into oblivion.  Just last week San Francisco’s decades old “Intersection for the Arts” announced it was shutting down the majority of its programing and laying off most of its staff.  Three years ago Intersection for the Arts was celebrating a grant of $770,000 made possible by the NEA.  So what happened?  The problem was that the money was not tied to any serious plan for sustainability.  It was a finger in the dam and now the dam has broken and we can only hope that Intersection produced almost a million dollars worth of good work in the past three years.  The fear was that without that money the company would shut down, but it shut down anyway.

Compare the story of Intersection to a small show in New York called the Truck Project.  The producers of the Truck Project, who most certainly do not have $770,000 to spend came up with a novel idea, instead of incurring thousands of dollars of expense to rent a traditional theater venue they rented a 24 foot truck to perform in.  Ticket buyers are informed of the truck’s location and watch the show in its box.  According to Eric Meyer, who along with Jean Ann Douglass produce the work, the original iteration of the show in 2010 was funded by a Kickstarter campaign involving no direct government grants or tax deductible donations.  The current run, paid for by the producers has already recouped its costs in ticket sales, a feat that almost no non profit theater can claim for its shows.

Faced with financial limitations the producers of the Truck Project found an innovative way to produce theater.  But lowering overhead was only one part of the equation, they also had to develop audience, to convince people to come see a show in a box truck.  This raises two important questions.  First, if these producers are recouping their investment with no government dollars why should they have to compete with larger companies who at best only cover half their costs through ticket sales and are getting the rest of their money, and most of the media’s attention through charity?  And second, what kind of innovations would the larger companies have come up with by now if they actually had to deal with economic reality in the same way the Truck Project does?  Would the Public Theater just close shop without so much charity?  Or would they find ways to innovate?

How will the NEA promote shows people can afford?

These pages have already covered the absurd recent claims made by a study at Southern Methodist University and in the New York Times that NEA dollars support art for low income people “just as much” as for rich people.  That study of the zip codes in which federal art dollars are spent does nothing to mitigate the fact that many NEA funded shows are offered at prices that working people simply cannot afford.  One need look no further than the Kaufmann Center in Kansas City until recently run by nominee Chu.  This month at the Kaufmann Center an evening of the music of the Rat Pack can be attended if one has $90 for the cheapest ticket or $260 for the most expensive seat.  For all the anger at government spending on sports stadiums a bleacher seat for a New York Yankees game costs $17 and the Bombers are paying their stars a lot more than the Kauffman Center.

This is not an issue that can be wished away. Tom Harkin’s claim that NEA programming is not elitist because New York jazz musicians came to Iowa one time simply doesn’t wash.  There is already Jazz in Iowa, not only on KCCK 88.3 on the FM dial, but also in many Jazz clubs around the state.  This is not the Io-way of the Music Man in which “libertine men, scarlet woman and ragtime” were feared.  In fact the idea that New York Jazz musicians need to go to Iowa to bring jazz to the rural folk might by some be considered elitist.  Stop funding art that costs $90 a ticket, it’s really that simple.

What are Reasonable Goals for Participation?

To truly judge the effectiveness of the NEA we need solid data on arts participation and we need to set goals for future participation.  Vague studies about who lives in the proximity of NEA funded programming is not enough.  Full accounting of audience and to the extent possible audience demographics are key to understanding the impact of the NEA.  Dr. Chu should be clear about what figures she wants to reach and what figures she believes are reachable.  It is important to remember that every dollar the government spends on arts programming is a dollar not spent on arts education in our schools.  Many proponents of the current role of the NEA believe these dollars are better spent on productions than education. If that is true we deserve to see the numbers.

It is my hope that Dr. Chu is considering these questions, or some version of them as she prepares for the task ahead.  For too long the question of the NEA has been locked in a zero sum debate.  Its detractors, unwilling to accept that there can be a useful role for government in the arts want it shut down. Its proponents, fearful of giving ammunition to the vulgarians’ attack refuse to accept any fault in the agency.  And in the meantime working artists in the United States are underserved and at times even undermined by an agency that is meant to help them.  Artists are going to keep making work, no matter what happens, and rich people are going to keep having galas.   The NEA needs to decide which it wants to support.

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