The NEA, along with the NEH, the IMLS, the CPB, etc., etc., is very important for both symbolic and practical reasons. And I know that my professional niche is the nonprofit arts and culture industry. With respect to “Engaging Matters” I have seldom written about issues not directly related to the practice of community engagement, but the fight over funding cultural support mechanisms is vitally important to our industry so I know I should be weighing in even though others with far better advocacy chops than I have already done yeoman’s work providing us with arguments and data.
At the same time, however, community engagement happens at the intersection of the arts and communities and things are so totally messed up in Washington that it has given me great pause to imagine spending huge amounts of time on “just” cultural funding issues. My mantra for the last two months has been “Why is it so hot and what are we all doing in this handbasket?”
Then, bless him, my colleague Michael Rohd, director of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice and Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre provided (in a Facebook post–I can’t figure out how to provide a link to it) a framework for how I think we should be approaching this horrendous state of affairs.
The NEA is not more important than neighborhood block grants. Than meals on wheels. Than services for those with special needs. I believe the best way to make the case for federal support of the arts at this moment is to connect the needs of our nation’s soul to the needs of our nation’s peoples. Many will be affected by the cuts this budget narrative lays out. We must think at the intersections. We must tell stories not just of great art production and leveraged grants and economic impact but of artists as assets engaged in the work of building healthier and more just communities. We must not shout- save the arts! We must sing – we stand together working towards equity, inclusion and resources for those most vulnerable among us. [Michael Rohd] Emphasis mine: DB
The other thing that concerns me is that, in general, attacks on public funding of the arts are not about money or the arts. They are often, as was the case with Mapplethorpe/Serrano in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s means for politicians to distract people from bigger issues. In my state Jesse Helms rode the NEA beast to re-election. I suspect that this administration’s mastery of deflection is a not-inconsiderable factor in the proposed budget.
My ventures into public policy discussion have primarily been about what might be called secondary advocacy: eliciting support by doing more things that large numbers of the electorate see as valuable. In other words, we should pursue community engagement work that will translate into increased support for the arts. The fact that the proposed spending budget was constructed in such a way as to eliminate funding for culture demonstrates that its creators believe the public will to support it is not there. Much has happened since the last major culture wars battles in the early 1990’s. There has been more public funding in more diverse and widespread regions than had been true up to that time. I suspect that there will be more grassroots support this time around.
If the body politic still does not rally in significant ways in support of the funding of culture it will be clear that we all still have much work to do in pursuit of impact and relevance.