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Is the NEA for everyone?

Several weeks ago, the great American Social Realist painter Jack Levine turned eighty years old. He was born in a working-poor neighborhood of Boston, the eighth child of an immigrant shoemaker. Yet by the time he was in his mid-teens, he could already draw like a Renaissance master. That's because from the age of nine, Levine's talent was given both space and structure in an after-school art program at a Boston settlement house. Whenever he felt like it, he could stroll over to the Museum of Fine Arts and study the techniques of the Old Masters up close. Later, a Harvard University scholar and artist heard about young Levine's great promise, and he provided the teenager with further education in the materials, discipline, and history of drawing and painting.

Coming from difficult economic circumstances, Levine might have been forced in spite of his splendid training to abandon his fledgling art career and take a job to help his family. But in the Depression, the Works Progress Administration was treating art-making as an occupation, and was providing artists with the opportunity to earn a modest living putting in regular working hours in the studio. Levine became one of America's most articulate and unsparing social painters, in the tradition of Daumier, Goya, and Hogarth.

So what does this story have to do with the current gleeful climate of art-bashing, as right-wingers in Congress try to wipe out the National Endowment for the Arts, which Newt Gingrich has sneeringly labeled "a plaything of pork"? Simply this: art can't flourish just by betting on the sheer force of individual talent to prevail. To survive, art requires both fostering at critical moments, and a community awake to the benefit of having people producing art in its midst.

The kill-the-NEA movement claims that the Endowment hands out checks to artists who are the enemies of mainstream America, that it is sucking cash right out of the pockets of decent, small-town folks, and using it as welfare checks for fancy artists in the urban fleshpots who spit on all that decent Americans value.

However, 95 percent of the Endowment's budget goes not to individuals but to institutions--and not just big-city orchestras and museums, but arts projects in rural community centers, town halls, regional festivals, and other social and civic institutions. The argument that corporate funding should replace federal funding can't stand up in regions of the country where there is no corporate presence to solicit. Perhaps the Chicago Symphony and the Santa Fe Opera could eventually cover the loss of Endowment funds by even more exhaustive campaigns among big businesspeople, but that strategy won't work for the Yup'ik Dance Festival in Mountain Village, Alaska, or the Folklife Project in Eunice, Louisiana.

It is these under-served areas that are likely to suffer most if NEA money is slashed from the federal budget.

Gingrich should look around his home state of Georgia to see the sorts of projects the NEA's helped underwrite. In the town of Pineview (population 450), a mural is under way that depicts the community as it looked fifty years ago. A similar community-history mural is in the works in Hawkinsville. Colquitt has produced Swamp Gravy, a stage play built entirely from oral histories and traditional tales gathered in the region. NEA money has also supported part of Atlanta's annual Black Arts Festival, which provides a breathtaking range of African-American music, visual art, traditional crafts, theater, and music.

As I write this, I'm listening to Meeting in the Air, a double-CD collection of sacred music from the Cherokee, black, and white populations who live at the place where Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina come together. I feel lifted off my chair by the splendid wave of voices, which I surely would never have heard if NEA funding hadn't made it possible to find these exceptional--but geographically isolated--talents, and to permit the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, to record them. While the singing groups are treasures in their own communities, their gifts are now available to the ears of a wider world. In that corner of the Appalachians, there are no corporate donors to fund such projects, because there are no corporations.

Preserving traditional arts is a hard sell to corporations, since the potential for large-scale reflected glory is simply not there. Why would Philip Morris want to fund an elderly shape-note singer's recording session when it can throw cash at big-audience, high-profile events like the Brooklyn Academy of Music's annual Next Wave Festival and see its name splashed across all of BAM's stationery and newspaper ads?

As for Newt's charge that NEA grants constitute funding for "avant-garde people who are explicitly not accepted by most of the taxpayers who are coerced into paying for it," it should be pointed out that the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, has been honored as an NEA National Heritage Fellow as has the blues guitarist and singer John Lee Hooker and B.B. King and Earl Scruggs. You still want to talk elitism, Newt?

In terms of helping to balance the government's books, even total elimination of the NEA will have almost no effect at all, since, according to the National Arts Alliance, cultural funding is a mere two ten-thousandths of 1 percent of the federal government's budget. That comes to 64 cents per person per year, far below the arts-funding level of any of our major allies.

That tiny bit of federal cash, however, multiplies like loaves and fishes. According to the Alliance, every dollar awarded by the NEA attracts $11 more from state and local arts agencies, foundations, corporations, and other public entities. Nationally, the not-for-profit arts generate $37 billion in economic activity, and sustain 1.3 million jobs. Some data suggest that cutting federal funding will likely hurt local economies, since the presence of arts institutions has been shown to spur urban renewal and attract new businesses. Not-for-profit arts organizations are hardly sinkholes for federal cash. Indeed, they create $37 billion in economic activity, support 1.3 million jobs, and return $3.4 million in income-tax revenue to the federal treasury.

Pushing these facts forward has become one of the two principal activities of arts fundraisers, who have been forced to frame their concerns in corporate language. The fundraisers' other task is to stress the educational component in whatever project they're supporting. Paul Goldberger, in a recent New York Times article, wondered if art's terrifying power wouldn't be undercut by such insistence that it be "useful."

Oddly enough, this idea of a purposeful art poses no problem for some of the most risk-taking arts organizations, such as Houston's DiverseWorks. When performance artist Rhodessa Jones comes to DiverseWorks in February, she'll also be working with girls detained at the juvenile-probation department. As one of the professionals participating in the Architecture Resource Center's Urban Design Lab in the New Haven public schools, Sam Gardner feels no need to apologize for the program's usefulness. Says Gardner: "We're not talking about `art for art's sake,' but art for community's sake--alive, tied to the real world."

Urban individuals and agencies receiving Endowment money are hardly spending their grants in blissful isolation from the masses. Jazz composer and pianist Harold Danko just received an Endowment grant that will pay for publicity and musicians' fees for a series of concerts of his compositions this spring in New York City. A music professional for twenty-five years, Danko sees his concert series as a way of putting jazz back out in public. "People used to learn jazz by going to hear each other play, not by going to conservatories," he says.

Ensuring such public access to the arts is one of the most critical battles in the NEA war. "You want to see elitism?" asks Samuel Sachs II, director of the Detroit Institute of Art. "Try cutting out funding to museums. The price of admission will shoot up past $20, and then nobody but the rich will be able to afford to look at paintings."

Down the road is the Detroit Symphony, which remains accessible not only to subscription ticket holders from Grosse Pointe, but also to the residents of inner-city Detroit. Some of the schools in Detroit's strapped public system would have no music component to their curriculum if it weren't for the participation of Detroit Symphony musicians, who put in classroom hours and provide on-site introductions to the classical repertory for students at Orchestra Hall. Gifted students--along with other community members--are eligible to become members of the Civic Orchestra, which under the aegis of the Detroit Symphony provides tuition-free instruction and an opportunity for regular public performance.

Ensuring that citizens, through a government agency, are able to participate in the fostering of the artists in our midst is not a matter of political party. After all, it was that original elite-basher, Richard M. Nixon, who gushed about the National Endowment for the Arts when he was President. "We should seek to encourage and develop individual artistic talent and new concepts in arts, just as we do in science and technology," Nixon said. "I will support that institution as the instrumentality of the federal government to nourish talent and contribute to the support of our museums, of the performing arts, and a flourishing of all the arts."

If it was safe enough for Nixon, it ought to be safe enough for Newt.

Jack Levine, in his ninth decade, is still painting every day, just as he always has. The stamina that has permitted him to paint his unsparing social commentaries is formidable to contemplate. But the professional means of fighting that good fight might never have been possible without community and government support in the formative moments of his career.

Levine has withstood the onslaught of five decades of art fads. His work has not always been the most appreciated, and certainly not the most remunerated. But it endures. Building endurance in those gifted members of our communities who take the difficult and uncertain path of making art should be a matter of national priority. The NEA was founded to do just that.

Margaret Spillane teaches writing at Yale University, writes frequently about culture and politics.
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Title Annotation:National Endowment for the Arts
Author:Spillane, Margaret
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Mar 1, 1995
Words:1695
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