Memo to the Presidential Candidates:
It’s time to put the artists back into the National Endowment for the Arts.
Specifically, it’s time we put the culture wars of the 1990s behind us. We need to resume providing grants to the people who matter most to the our national cultural life—those who create the art.
Like Christo‘s “The Gates” that finally got installed in Central Park in 2005 after years of opposition, the resumption of artists’ fellowships requires a change in political mindsets that will only happen if the official at the top—New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, in the case of “The Gates”; the new President in the case of artists’ fellowships—throws his weight squarely behind it. (The same can be said for changing the tax law to restore fair-market-value deductions for artists’ donations of their own work—something that Obama has already said he favors.)
In deference to delicate Congressional sensibilities, the NEA now offers grants to do-good projects that sound more like educational and social welfare programs than professional cultural activities. Some of the money for these government-funded projects is assumed to trickle down to participating artists. That’s not the same thing as directly supporting artists of the high professional caliber for work of their own choosing.
Today’s federal arts support is largely targeted to meet poltical priorities of geographical distribution, access and outreach. One of NEA’s chief visual arts programs, Access to Artistic Excellence, funds a number of residencies, outreach initiatives and community-based exhibitions, including grantees like these:
Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, Inc., Albuquerque, NM, $15,000—To support ArtStreet. Designed to give homeless artists access to art-making opportunities and mentorship, the project is a partnership
with Tamarind Institute and the Harwood Art Center.
ArtsChange, Richmond, CA, $15,000—To support a series of curated exhibitions installed in the waiting room of Richmond’s main public health facility. The project will promote the value of the arts in the healing process and provide access to art for users of the facility.
The NEA used to give financial grants directly to emerging and mid-career artists at a moment in their creative lives when that money and national recognition made a big difference. Now. through its Lifetime Honors program, it provides grants to “master artists” and hosts ceremonies celebrating the lives of established cultural figures who have achieved celebrity status in their fields.
A concert in Washington tomorrow, according to the agency’s announcement, will “recognize the recipients of…the NEA Opera Honors.” The honorees include internationally acclaimed Metropolitan Opera conductor and music director James Levine and soprano Leontyne Price, both of whom have no need of further validation by the federal grant agency.
The literary arts are uniquely advantaged when it comes to current NEA support for artists: There are awards for production of outstanding new American plays, literature translation fellowships and even a large number of $25,000 creative writing fellowships. Why is it acceptable to give awards to individual writers but not to individual painters?
It’s time for NEA’s focus to move away from political compromise and back towards uncompromising professional excellence. That’s what Congress originally intended, back in 1965 when it established NEA to provide federal support for the arts.