The Playgoer: Be Careful What You Ask For

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Be Careful What You Ask For

by Abigail Katz

As I was completing my novel last night, otherwise known as the NEA application for Access to Artistic Excellence, I began to think about the larger issue of government funding for the arts, and how our guy Rocco Landesman will head the agency.

I've always grappled with this issue of government funding for arts- uncertain if significantly increased support would be a good thing. WHAT???? you ask. I know!

Here's the thing: If Rocco Landesman can work the same magic in D.C. that he has in New York commercial theatre for so many years, the NEA budget will increase. He knows how to get money, that's why he is such a good choice for the position. Logically, an increased budget will mean increased support. In theory, this is what we want, somewhat closer to the European model (although unlikely we'll ever match that.) 

But my question is, can we handle it? WHAT???? you ask again. My reason for asking is that knowing the DNA of our country, if our government increases support for the arts, most likely it also increases its control over the arts. Do we want to risk that? Some European countries offer heavy subsidies for arts and culture and don't interfere with the work. On this side of the pond, the controversies surrounding the work of Karen Finley, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum have shown us that such a hands-off policy in America is next to impossible.

So what do we do? Do we say thanks but no thanks? Well that's just silly, who would turn away free money- especially at a time when non-profit arts institutions are taking such a hit. But should Landesman be successful in negotiating increases allowing more funds to go toward the arts, we must be firmly on our guard and insist that content is not compromised in exchange for support.

That being said, diversify your funding people! And when you can, show individual support for the arts organization of your choice.


isaac butler said...


I hear these kinds of arguments every now and then and frankly, I don't buy them.

What exactly is the difference between the Government's sway over artistic decisions and subscribers? or corporate donors? or large individual givers? Is it really that much more powerful? Or that much worse? I sincerely doubt it. Will it have an impact? of course it will. Certain work will become more viable, other work less so. But that's true with any entity giving money to help subsidize any art.

The NEA, unlike Philip Morris, unlike the SLOAN foundation, unlike a wealthy subscriber who puts their name on theater, unlike the Ford Motor company is actually accountable to something. In the past that hasn't always been a positive thing (oddly enough) but in the long run, I'd rather fight for that and for improving that than continue to rely on unaccountable corporate donors who see art as another way to expand their advertising.

Abigail Katz said...

I totally hear you and I think you make a good point. I don't know that one giving entity is necessarily more powerful than another, but given the fact that the NEA represents tax-payers across the nation and is under the sway of congress, there is the danger of too much interference depending on who holds elected office. I'm not in any way suggesting that there shouldn't be government funding, I'm just saying that we have to do our part in making sure that its true funding that won't be taken away if someone is "offended" by the work created with those funds. Thank you for your comment- it's an important issue!