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National Endowment’s City Design Grants: The Fallacy of “Great Outcomes”

Rendering of “Culture Shed,” a planned new facility for the Hudson Yards redevelopment project on West Side of Manhattan
Photo: Diller Scofidio + Renfro/The Rockwell Group

In the latest manifestation of his “Art Works” campaign to promote the “arts as an economic engine,” Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, yesterday announced 21 grants totaling $3 million awarded through NEA’s Mayors’ Institute on City Design 25th-anniversary initiative (MICD 25). The grants support “creative placemaking projects that contribute toward the livability of communities and help transform sites into lively, beautiful, and sustainable places with the arts at their core.”

NEA’s links to descriptions of all 21 MICD grants are here. The sole art museum on the list is the Indianapolis Museum, which (not content to rest on its 100 Acres laurels) was granted $200,000 for public art projects by Mary Miss and others, to be installed along the White River and Central Canal.

That seems to me to fit squarely within the proper scope of NEA grants, which have traditionally supported activities of cultural creation and presentation. Not so, though, the $100,000 grant for architectural plans related to Culture Shed, a proposed NYC cultural facility, described today by Kate Taylor in the NY Times:

According to someone involved with the project who was not authorized to describe it and spoke only on the condition of anonymity, the building would be primarily, but not exclusively, for visual art. It would not be affiliated with any one cultural institution but would instead function like a time share, with different institutions as partners. (The Tate Modern, in London, has been mentioned.) So far, several institutions in the United States and Europe have expressed interest in being involved, the person said.

According to NEA’s description of the project:

With its MICD25 grant, HYDC [Hudson Yards Development Corporation, a not-for-profit entity] will develop advanced design plans for Culture Shed, an innovative facility intended to serve as a cultural anchor for the Hudson Yards redevelopment.

A collaborative effort by the leading architectural firms Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the Rockwell Group, Culture Shed is a five-story fixed building on a 22,000-square-foot site—two deployable outer sheds that fit over the base can be rolled from their nested positions on tracks on the east and west sides of the base building, resulting in an exhibition hall of more than 55,000 square feet. The new building will enhance the city’s capacity to present a wide range of cultural programming and act as an integrated presenting space.

I regard this as an inappropriate diversion of federal art funds. NEA grants should appropriately go to the new facility’s cultural programming, if and when it’s actually up and running, but not for its design and construction. NEA should serve the needs of the existing cultural community (not speculative and ambigious new ventures) and should leave the creation of new facilities, with still uncertain uses, to private funders or other government agencies whose mission involves supporting redevelopment construction projects.

What’s more, I disagree with the appropriateness of NEA’s rationale for getting involved in such projects. According to the agency’s press release:

To develop MICD25 and to inform the Art Works vision, Chairman Landesman and staff at the NEA looked to recent research. Chief among those is the work done by Professor Mark Stern and Susan Seifert with the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania. Their research demonstrates that the presence of arts has three main effects:

1) The arts are a force for social cohesion and civic engagement. People who participate in the arts are more likely to engage in other civic activities, leading to more stable neighborhoods.

2) The arts are a force for child welfare: low income populations with high cultural participation rates are more than twice as likely to have very low truancy and delinquency rates.

3) And finally, the arts are a poverty fighter. They do this through direct employment, and they do this by leveraging other jobs: the restaurants, retail stores, and hotels that spring up alongside cultural districts.

But for most art lovers, these supposed “three main effects” of the arts—social cohesion, child welfare, poverty-fighting—are way down the list of why we think the arts are important and deserve funding.

András Szántó, director of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University, critically examines the various rationales for arts support in his must-read article, Funding: The State of the Art, published last month in the Art Newspaper. He debunks the flawed arguments typically advanced, including what he calls the “great outcomes” argument, favored by NEA, which touts the purported economic and social benefits of cultural activities:

The fly in the ointment is that some of the advertised outcomes have proved elusive. And even if benefits are achieved, the question looms whether there might be simpler ways to deliver the same outcomes. After all, cancer hospitals also produce (taxpaying) jobs and may reduce neighborhood crime, but no one in their right mind would advocate for them for those reasons.

The main weakness of the great benefits rhetoric, in other words, is that it detaches arts advocacy from its own subject. “Such arguments move the discussion away from profound individual encounters with art, to experiences that yield more diffuse and less immediate communal benefits,” says James Smith, a former foundation president and a historian of American philanthropy. “What really matters is the development of our own creative capacities and the deeper appreciation of the creative work of others.”

“In the end,” Szántó concludes, “our arguments may not amount to that much. There are
probably no magic rhetorical bullets”…

…just the unmeasurable intrinsic benefits of the arts in challenging conventions and nourishing the eye, mind and spirit.

Speaking of funding activities with intrinsic benefit, this has been my best week ever for CultureGrrl Contributors: My warm thanks go out to CultureGrrl Donors 140 and 141 from Houston and NYC, and, especially, CultureGrrl Repeat Donor 142 from Los Angeles, joining three other donors this week.

The week’s not over yet! Can we keep this momentum going?

I guess I’m going to have to plow some of these benefactions back into CultureGrrl, purchasing the better pocket video camera that I’ve been craving. When you notice that the faces in my CultureGrrl Videos no longer have a uniformly green cast, you’ll know that I’ve upgraded!

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