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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
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March 10, 2005

Reminded of the NEA

Bob, as usual and as is to be expected (given his line of work), has made a solid argument for an inclusive approach to advocacy. As I said in my first posting, there is no obligation to be absolutely truthful when you're trying to make a case. Yes, our instrumental arguments might leak here and there, but they also contain some solid truths and they work.

Bob's mention of the turnaround at the NEA leads me to ruminate, for a moment, on the things that we changed within the agency that put the brakes on the three-year phaseout and got the Endowment's budget growing again.

A quick anecdote: after attending a management seminar for new political appointees hosted by VP Al Gore in the summer of 1998, I came back to the Old Post Office and said, "I thought I was Chairman of the NEA; I didn't know until this morning I was the head of a federal agency!" I was kind of kidding, of course, but my underlying point was that, inside the Endowment and outside the NEA, there existed a highly-evolved sense of entitlement and exceptionalism -- a strong feeling that the agency was above or exempt from the political rules that might affect, say, the Department of Transportation. "We're the arts; we're very, very special." In the non-profit arts world, this notion of exceptionalism and entitlement means, among other things, that the cultural sector feels free to make claims for support even when it's not possible to demonstrate demand for services. "Citizens want and need what we're offering even though they don't know it and aren't asking for it." That's a tough line to sell in any political environment and, even if you get by with it now and then and get some money, you're skating on thin ice in comparison to other petitioners who can argue citizen demand. (Responding parenthetically to Doug, I think the notion of arts exceptionalism makes it hard to let arts organizations pass away gracefully -- death of the entitled reeks of moral failure.) Also, back in the late '90s I also got the feeling that arts people in and out of government held the concerns of members of Congress in what I would describe as "minimal high regard," and I'm convinced that many members "got the message" that they and their ideas were not worthy of serious consideration. Personally, I found mostly smart and dedicated people on the Hill, and, above all, they were CONGRESS, and therefore were to be taken seriously.

The staff I inherited at the Endowment insisted that I didn't have time to learn the job but had to do something right away (They were correct; your time is always shorter than you think in those political positions.). So, in the summer of 1998 we gathered up much of the staff and developed a new strategic plan for the NEA. Most notably in that document, we moved away from describing the agency as one that "served art and artists" toward language that said we "served the American people by partnering with artists and arts organization." At about the same time, the senior career and political staffs were encouraging (in fact, really pressing me) to come up with a "special initiative." That initiative turned out to be "Challenge America," a small grant program that grew out of Senior Deputy Scott Peterson's experience in South Carolina. We sketched it out and launched the program in a Chicago speech early in 1999; we convinced OMB and the White House to request $50 million in new money for CA, and I went, bird by bird, to every advocacy and service organization in the country to elicit their support. They bought in, and the Challenge America Initiative is what Bob's many advocates came together around and supported with such coherent enthusiasm in 1999, 2000, and 2001.

Hindsight is 20/20, and I'd like to say we (meaning Scott P., Dick Woodruff, Cherie Simon, Larry Baden, and many others in and out of government) had it all figured out with the CA Initiative, but partly we got lucky on a couple of points. We had come up with a program that was really about community arts, and was geared toward helping communities realize their dreams through the arts with small, fast-turnaround grants. To our surprise, this was a program that made sense to the Hill, because it was like other federal programs intended to improve quality of life in their states or districts, and it left key decisionss to local leaders -- we weren't telling communities what they had to do. We also (somewhat unconsciously) had come up with political language in naming the program, and members of Congress were quick to incorporate "Challenge America" into committee comments and floor speeches. But the Endowment was in a pretty deep hole, and even with a new program that clicked with members, and even with a strong advocacy effort that was really "on point," it still took two years of work to get the first budget increase.

I go on at such length because, to me, the lesson I took away from the success of Challenge America was how much arts advocates have to gain by casting ourselves as a regular, mainstream, citizen-oriented part of the public policy process. That means accommodating demand, holding in check those feelings of entitlement and exceptionalism, and really listening to policy leaders with contrary views. My message was "I'm the NEA Chairman from Nashville with a solid program that helps your communities realize their dreams through the arts." It would not have helped me then, and probably wouldn't help now, to come in and talk about the intrinsic benefits of the arts.

While I was in Washington, I kept my little Piper Cub at an airport near Warrenton, Virginia. On my way home after flying I'd often stop off at the Wal-Mart to acquire those Wal-Mart items we all have to buy from time to time. I'd stand in the middle of the store, look at all the shoppers (I bet you didn't know that more than half of Wal-Mart shoppers don't even have checking accounts.), and ask myself "What is the NEA doing for these citizens?" I was never able to answer that question as directly as could, say, Janet Reno at Justice or even James Lee Witt at FEMA. However, I think there's an answer out there -- not the old, "build it and they will come," or the even older "bring great art to the unwashed, and they will be grateful" -- but something that really makes art and artists partners in improving quality of life for Americans.

Posted by bivey at March 10, 2005 07:31 AM


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