The Playgoer: Obama's NEA

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Obama's NEA

“In these difficult economic times, it is easy to forget about the arts as a part of the American economy. That would be a grave mistake. The Great Depression gave rise to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided meaningful and constructive employment to tens of thousands of artists, musicians, writers, actors, and others working in the theater. The WPA provided the nation with a wealth of art and culture we still enjoy. As we work to avoid another depression, the NEA — with the right leadership — could play a vital role."

-Paul Almeida, president of the Department for Professional Employees of the AFL-CIO, parent union of AEA, SAG, and other artist guilds.

Obama doesn't have an NEA plan yet. The post is still open. Dana Gioia (the best we were going to do under a Republican) stepped down in deference to the new administration. And thankfully Obama accepted his resignation.

So in crisis, opportunity, eh?

Happily, he's put the NEA right at the center of the current stimulus negotiations. And not surprisingly, it's the first provision House Republicans point to crying "waste!" and irrelevancy to the economy. But it's heartening to see more economists out there trumpeting arts subsidy/investment as a bona fide job builder.

Meanwhile, Allan Jalon of the LA Times Culturemonster blog broke the story a couple of weeks ago that the top candidate right now is one Michael Dorf, a big player in the Chicago civic & arts scene. (No, not the indie music impresario and Knitting Factory founder.) No wispy arts enthusiast he, Dorf--according to his bio--is actually a high-powered lawyer who seems to have developed arts-law as a specialty in his work for congressmen and 1980s Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.

He may play the bassoon, we are told, but the guy's a very well connected corporate macher. And I say that not sure it's such a bad thing. Why not have someone in there with DC savvy and clout.

And it doesn't hurt he comes from a very theatre-friendly town, whose theatre scene greatly benefited from the "Cultural Plan" he spearheaded under Mayor Washington.

Plus, Jalon reports, he has already won over the artist union reps, including AEA, who were introduced to Dorf through a carefully orchestrated conference call at Obama transition HQ.

Still--do we vest too much importance in this position? Over the years, the size of this national arts "endowment" goes up. goes down, always by pennies, it seems. The truth is, it will never, never reach the per-capita levels of the most meager European culture ministries. I'm afraid it will always be a somewhat ceremonial post.

Some now suggest the remedy is to think even bigger--a cabinet-level Secretary of the Arts! There's even a petition. But I fear the last thing we need at the national-patronage level is Senate Confirmation hearings and other processes that will just force arts policy to keep waving in the political winds every new administration.

Or, like with Interior, HHS, and HUD, when arts-indifferent Republicans take over they'll just stock the department with incompetents.

Yet much as I still fantasize what good an American "Minister of Culture" could accomplish, I find myself now thinking smaller. What I mean is: it's all about the states now.

This country is just way too damn big to effectively administer any kind of national arts agenda. Plus, with all the yahoos and religious tools still wielding considerable regional power for the foreseeable future, we don't need yet more "culture wars" over the next time someone wants a grant to produce Corpus Christi or Angels in America or Laramie Project with (heavens!) "taxpayer dollars." The Age of Obama will not put an end to that throughout the land.

No, I'd rather put my trust in the state rather than The Nation-State. I trust each state (and local/city/municipal governments) to calculate the value of their arts orgs' contributions to their economy, tourism, and public image. Local government arts "czars" can be more responsive to individual arts institutions--and can even attend them!

Yes, there's state programs now. (And in New York NYSCA is already a big deal.) But think how much further that could go. I've personally had it with dreams of some "National Theatre" in the US--but I really like the sound of, say, "The Michigan State Theatre"!

I raise this now knowing full well it is the state funding of the arts that's really going down the toilet in this recession/depression. And that's a big shame. The best thing the NEA could do right now, for my money, is to simply inject its relatively healthy national budget into all these state agencies in a kind of blood transfusion.

Isaac over at Parabasis has been airing thoughts about this topic as well, having just worked for Obama's "arts council" during the campaign--including an intriguing thought experiment finding room for supplemental arts funding in other agencies (like HUD). He also points to a thought-provoking essay calling outright for a resurrection of the WPA and a "New New Deal," echoed in the quote above.

Depression measures for Depression times.


Roger Dunbar said...

I agree with your comments on the states. It is better to govern on a more granular scale, where each state (and communities within the state) have their own unique focus on the arts.

Anonymous said...

I believe that "states rights" is just one of many conservative "values" that we could co-op to great effect. And I'm certainly not in favor of an arts position in the Obama cabinet. We may as well throw the republicans a big pinata with A-R-T written on it.

If we, as a community, are not ready to go to the mattresses to defend the value of arts, and we're not, then we don't need to offer up our field for target practice again.

We just need to keep the $50 mil' in the stimulus pack, and defend it as "shovel ready" - we have one of the few national structures constantly in place to get money into the economy right away - the NEA.

Jonathan Jovel said...

This is a very insightful post that offers a realistic and practical solution to the problems facing theatre and the economy today. I very much appreciated the quote from Paul Almedia to open your post as it provided a wonderful sense of contextual hindsight before laying down the points of your argument. I completely agree that the power of government funding for the arts is best left in the hands of the state. Under the control of the Federal government, I fear that theatre would run the risk of becoming oppressively political, as you exemplified with the potentially controversial federally funded productions of plays such as The Larimie Project and Angels in America. It seems that artistic creation would inevitably have to battle political institutions to make any sort of controversial stance, which would no doubt be harmful to the voice of theatre. I also agree with Rlewis above that the United States is simply not ready for any type of cabinet level arts position. As a nation we are not anywhere near the level of appreciation for the value of the arts that is necessary for a position of this nature to be taken seriously.

Especially during our current economic struggles, something must be done to make theatre more affordable and more accessible to the masses. Your proposed state-level funding may just be that something. It would allow for a more appropriate appropriation of funds, given each state’s unique artistic identity. However, as you wrote, state funding for the arts is unfortunately being placed on backburner during this recession. This is quite expected considering the level of priority given to the arts in society, which is an entire problem in itself. Until this general misperception of art is challenged and reversed, I don’t foresee any real change coming from government level in increasing theatre’s accessibility. I would love to hear your thoughts on this, as well as how you think we can begin to break down these incorrect notions of theatre and the arts to pave the way for a greater acceptance by society and a greater availability for society.