Bill Ivey, arts operative
Two weeks ago, I chatted during an NYU conference break with Bill Ivey, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who is President Obama‘s team leader for the three federal cultural agencies—NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Ivey is currently director of Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy.
With the House and Senate now poised to iron out the differences between their economic stimulus bills (which would pump $820 billion or $838 billion, respectively, into the economy), this is a good time share some excerpts from my conversation with the man whose tasks included “trying to make the arts a part of any economic stimulus or recovery package that was presented by the Obama administration to Congress.” The success of that initiative now appears in doubt: Only the House, but not the Senate. has included $50 million for the NEA in its approved stimulus plan.
Ivey offered these comments before that recent legislative action:
On the Arts and Economic Stimulus:
I talked to people and wrote memos and ended up meeting with Peter Orszag, who is now White House budget director, to convey to him the great capacity that our three cultural grantmaking agencies—the NEA. the NEH and the IMLS—have in terms of moving money out quickly and responsibly through peer-review grantmaking processes, in ways that reach all over the country—communities large and small—immediately creating jobs. I don’t know of any other example where the capacity of an arts agency was made part of an over-arching White House initiative from the very beginning….
The idea would be to move money quickly. It would result in things like this: A theater company is building sets; you hire five carpenters instead of two. A dance company is going to do a performance; you consider live music instead of recorded music. We could hire musicians. So what you do is use the network that’s well established, that links the NEA to its many stakeholders, to spend money in communities and create new jobs….
If you look at them with a cold hard eye, they [the arts agencies] have one of the best processes for moving money responsibly, with great geographical reach. The dollars aren’t large, but the impact is great and the process is very responsible and very effective. So I think any member of Congress who cares about economic stimulus being well executed doesn’t have to look much further than NEA, NEH and IMLS.
On White House Oversight of Culture:
I worked hard to try to forge a link between the arts agencies and mainstream policy in the West Wing of the White House. I know that there is serious consideration being given to placing an arts-and-culture portfolio within the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Engagement in the Domestic Policy Council. I worked hard to get that done and I think that will happen.
On a Cabinet-Level Secretary of Culture:
That’s a goal. The question is, where do you start? I think it was very useful, in terms of making my case, to have the Quincy Jones petition circulating online. But if one really imagines what a cabinet-level “art czar” would do, I think the mind boggles rather quickly, because cabinet-level people usually have departments. They have lots of people working for them. They have office buildings. It’s big money.
In the case of arts and culture, to do a department properly, you would have to roll up the grantmaking agencies, the FCC, the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress and portions of what the U.S. Trade Representative does, in order to make a robust entity dealing with culture. It would look like the Department of Homeland Security. I don’t think the American people are ready for that yet.
On Restoring Artists Fellowships:
Individual artists grants were, with the exception of literature grants, taken out of the NEA portfolio because there was a perception that this was a source of the kind of grants that were problematic. To move individual artists grants back into the NEA will require a conversation with leading members of Congress, because they’re going to have to feel comfortable with it.
When I asked Ivey whether he thought Congress COULD get comfortable with artists grants, he sidestepped:
I think that there is an opportunity for a new relationship between government and cultural vibrancy. I think there’s a chance that the Obama White House will see a vibrant cultural scene as a public good in a way no administration really has before. A lot of things can flow from that.
The fact of the matter is—and this is like the 600-pound gorilla, sitting in the corner, that no one talks about—if our economy resets, we’re going to have to think about defining a high quality of life in a way that doesn’t have a new house, a new car, an expensive vacation at its core. And I think cultural vibrancy, a new connection to cultural heritage, a new connection with the sense of achievement that comes from creativity and artmaking—those can be a key to a high quality of life, even if our financial expectations have to be lowered. I think the Obama administration is well positioned to see arts and culture as an instrument of good public policy.
On Restoring Tax Deductions for Artists’ Donations of Their Own Work:
I think it should be very easy in this environment, because we’re looking not only at economic stimulus through spending, but at economic stimulus through tax relief, and that’s a very easy, affordable form of tax relief that will pay big dividends to cultural nonprofits.
There are some advantages for artists and arts organizations to position themselves as unique, especially entitled, especially important. But I think there are also advantages to seeing artists and art organizations as regular parts of the economy. Artists are important workers. Arts organizations are important small and medium-sized businesses. I think if we consider them that way, particularly in this environment, we may get more benefit than if we play the exceptionalism card.
I imagine that recent Senatorial slights may have undermined the confidence, expressed by Ivey two weeks ago, that art, artists and federal arts agencies would pass muster as “regular parts of the economy” in a stimulus plan. The final returns aren’t in yet, but my guess is that if arts-friendly Sen. Charles Schumer could vote against releasing stimulus dollars for theaters and museums, the House-Senate conferees will have few qualms about axing NEA’s $50 million to get this deal done.
I hope I’m wrong.