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National endowment for administrators; the NEA's real problem isn't crucifixes in urine - it's bureaucrats in Dubuque.

The Arts Endowment has never called a great artist into being," declares National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) chairman John Frohnmayer in the NEA's glossy 1989 annual report. It seems an odd and ambiguous declaration for the chairman of the nation's leading arts agency to make-one that clearly resonated with the wrong faction during the NEA debate of 89 and '90. Thousands of cranky constituents wrote Congress protesting that their tax dollars had gone to support artists they had never heard of, but were pretty sure they disliked: names like Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, Shawn Eichman, Annie Sprinkle. Not a Titian or a Faulkner in this crowd, the citizenry suspected-not even a Fragonard or a Ford Madox Ford.

But now that the dust has settled on the Mapplethorpes and the NEA has survived reauthorization for another three years, we have the time to parse Frohnmayer's words anew. The chairman's point was not that the NEA prefers to fund undistinguished painters, photographers, poets, and potters, but rather that only a minuscule amount (7.6 percent) of NEA funding goes directly to artists. To make this point abundantly clear, the Endowment is distributing a "fact sheet" emphasizing that-contrary to rumors fomented by the Right, none of the above-mentioned artists received direct NEA funding for his controversial exhibit.

Rest assured, America: During its first quarter century, the NEA has doled out the lion's share of its budget to arts organizations-symphonies, dance companies, presenters, theaters, cultural centers, and various "arts alliances." In other words, you may not have underwritten Serrano's rent or Sprinkle's sex toys, but you did contribute $4,700 to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles "to support a comprehensive survey of security needs at the museum's Temporary Contemporary facility."

Feel better about shelling out $17,500 to Dimensions Dance Theater in Oakland, California, "to support the salary of the executive director"? How about $5,000 to the Society of Folk Arts and Culture, Inc., in Eutaw, Alabama, "to support the salaries of an outreach coordinator and a clerical assistant, and other administrative expenses associated with the implementation of programs that preserve and document the cultural traditions of West Alabama"?

Or-last, but not least-a whopping $50,000 to New York's Theater Projects Consultants, Inc. "for a cooperative agreement to conduct a feasibility study for the development of performance facilities within the International Cultural and Trade Center in Washington, D.C."?

In truth, one of the NEAs most enduring accomplishments has been to save a considerable and evergrowing number of consultants, development directors, grant writers, and other professionals from lives of alcoholism, misery, and obscurity-a possibility that accounts for the considerable self-interest that permeates Public Money and the Muse*, a collection of essays that grew out of several seminars attended by these very people. According to the list at the end of the book, only four bona fide artists were among the 73 attendees at eight seminars sponsored by the American Assembly of Columbia University to consider the fate of government-financed arts in America; the rest were arts administrators, professors of arts administration, directors of foundations, and arts patrons-in other words, the prime architects and beneficiaries of today's cultural policy.

Serrano rap

A collection that purports to broaden the arts debate beyond the narrow focus of the 1989-90 obscenity discussion, Public Money and the Muse falls far short of illumination. While the authors do raise some compelling criticisms of the NEA and American cultural policy in general-its elitism, its cliquishness, its conservatism-nearly all conclude with a rote paragraph wistfully harking back to the NEA they knew and loved before Congress began obsessing about sex. (The 1991 reauthorization bill declares that NEA money will be withdrawn from any work judged obscene by a court of law-a milder version of the 1990 bill, which forbade the funding of any work the Endowment or Congress deemed obscene.) None of the 12 contributors is willing to acknowledge that the federal government has no obligation to fund the arts, for example. Nor do the authors waste time showing the skeptic why, obligation or no obligation, the federal government might want to do so.

To understand the origin of this vested interest, it helps to understand the funding structure of the NEA and the intricate web of arts agencies to which it has given rise. The Endowment was created in 1965 to help resuscitate the country's great arts institutions. At the time, production costs for museums, symphony orchestras, dance companies, and other "national treasures" were escalating faster than ticket income, with no respite in sight. The NEA's aim was to encourage these institutions to make up for the growing "income gap" by culling charitable contributions from foundations, corporations, moneyed individuals, and government sources. Toward this goal, the NEA requires that all grants except those to artists must be matched by other contributed dollars on at least a one-to-one basis. Thus, while the NEA's current budget falls short of $200 million, the Endowment calculates that the matching mechanism leverages as much as $1.3 billion in private funds. None of it goes to rank amateurs, either; the NEA restricts its money to "professional" artists and staff, as do many private donors who use the Endowment's imprimatur as their criterion for selection.

At the same time, the Endowment has spawned an enormous family of smaller arts agencies throughout the country, all with their own staffs and similar funding mechanisms. In every state plus D.C., American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Marianas is an arts council that, like the NEA, selects its grantees through "peer review panels" and then requires that those grants be approved by a council of political appointees.

Of course, these councils also serve to siphon off NEA money. Currently, state agencies receive 20 percent of NEA funds (by the end of this year, this figure will rise to 35 percent) and draw additional money from state legislatures and private sources. Below these are thousands of local arts agencies, which help communities with amorphous goals like "long-range cultural planning"; above them, believe it or not, are regional arts agencies, which assist state agencies in putting together tours. The result is a bewildering bureaucracy with lots of staff but only an indirect connection to the creative process. It comes as no surprise, then, that while the number of artists in the U.S. has doubled under NEA's tenure, the number of nonprofit arts organizations has quadrupled.

Yet when congressmen criticize the NEA, their targets are almost always the artists. Fifteen years ago, for instance, a proto-uproar was sparked when an irate representative discovered that an author had received a $500 NEA grant for a poem containing one word. Still, nothing could have prepared the Endowment for the day in 1989 when Senator Jesse Helms discovered that NEA money had gone to fund a traveling exhibit of something called "Piss Christ" in his home state of North Carolina.

In his overview of government and the arts, Milton Cummings Jr., carefully traces the government-artist conflict from 1817 to the Helms era. Yet after summarizing nearly 200 years of arts tensions, Cummings blithely concludes that the programs of the NEA have "taken root," and that the institution has contributed to a "remarkable flowering of the arts ... in the United States over the last generation."

The same myopia permeates many of the essays, including Kathleen Sullivan's piece on the First Amendment issues involved in the dispute and Paul DiMaggio's study of the differences between the NEA and state arts councils. (They do much of the same work, DiMaggio observes, and they should be kept just as they are.) And even the most critical exploration-"Cultural Equity," jointly written by Robert Garfias and Gerald D. Yoshitomi-never really reevaluates the NEA's role in American art.

These two authors portray the NEA as clubby and outdated; they suggest that the NEA perpetuates public suspicion of logrolling and incest on NEA "peer review" panels-grants from which have been issued to stepmothers, friends, brothers, and panel members themselves. Pointing out that arts attendance dropped during the eighties, Garfias accuses the NEA of propping up organizations that are serving dwindling audiences." Yoshitomi argues that the "matching funds" clause stymies groups (often minority groups) with limited access to foundations and wealthy benefactors. Yet these authors don't want to dispense with federal funding; they simply would like to see a more accessible NEA.

In part because of objections like Garfias's and Yoshitomi's, it seems difficult to find a good reason for the federal government to serve as the employer of first resort for the arts, channeling most of the resources into the healthiest organizations-particularly when so few Americans note positive results. (At the height of the congressional debate, anti-Endowment letters to Congress outnumbered pro-NEA missives 16 to 1.) It's also hard to sanction a system that not only breeds arts administrators but compels them to cater to wealthy patrons rather than benefiting the rest of us, who would enjoy concerts and the theater more often if tickets were cheaper.

What would happen, one wonders, if a genuinely drastic change took place: say, if the federal government funded more artists directly, as it did in the thirties, lowering their fees and production costs-and thus making the arts affordable for more people? Or if the NEA required its grantees to match NEA money to ticket income, spurring companies to attract new audiences rather than new patrons? What would happen if the NEA no longer required matching funds at all, leaving itself open to all comers, established or obscure? What would happen if the feds got out of the arts business altogether-or if an entirely new model were created?

In his essay, Yoshitomi writes that today's is a "different America than the one in which the NEA was created," indicating that the time has come to draft a new design. But neither he nor any of the other contributors makes a concrete, imaginative proposal. Presumably, the forces behind Public Money and the Muse-nurtured on the present funding system-find a substantive shift in the current system too unnerving to contemplate. After all, anything that alters the NEA might presage the end of arts administration as we know it. Who knows, it might even produce a great artist.
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Title Annotation:National Endowment for the Arts
Author:Mundy, Liza
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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