On his way out the door, Rocco Landesman lobbed one final, wonderful bomb out there in a conversation with his counterpart in France (who, by the way, receives $9 billion-with-a-B in annual funding whereas the NEA has about $150 million). He was speaking at the World Arts Forum, and spoke about a “fundamental, visceral distrust of the arts” by the American public. He called the NEA funding level “pathetic,” and who can disagree, and his blunt honesty about what he called the arts’ “cowboy mentality” and lack of consideration of the reality in which we live echoes strongly for me with other things I’ve been reading about our particular insular issues.
Last week, I hosted, for Theatre Bay Area, the always fascinating Margy Waller in a presentation of her Arts Ripple Effect work for many of our leading Bay Area artists, thinkers and funders. The topic, as it always is with the Arts Ripple Effect report, was the framing of the arts—how we talk about the work we do, how we convince others of the value of what we value—with a particular focus on how that framing can happen independent of frequent, or event occasional, attendance.
Framing is a fascinating topic to me. In one way, it seems like such an obvious idea—it’s a science (well, as much of a science as psychology, which is to say my kind of science) of figuring out the vocabulary around an issue that will create a long-term shift in the thinking of the general public on that issue. It’s “right to choose” versus “right to life.” It’s “death panels,” “Romnesia,” “47 percent.”
In the case of the arts, a lot of our framing issue is tied up strongly in the articulation of “need” versus “want,” or, as Waller put it, “necessity versus nicety.” As I’ve gone on about on this blog before, through no particularly conscious effort, over the past thirty to forty years, a shift has occurred in American society that has primarily manifested (at least for our purposes) as an apathy and/or outright resentment of the fine arts, a belief that they are functionally a luxury, not a necessity, and perhaps most problematically, a given understanding that the fine arts, with all of their boxed up, appointed time, old tradition, surrounded by old white people issues, aren’t “for” most people. We are, it seems, in framing hell.
At the same time as we were presenting Waller and her Arts Ripple report, I came upon this discussion early on in Diane Ragsdale’s report, In the Intersection, which covers a convening between commercial and non-profit theatre producers hosted by the Center for Theatre Commons in 2011. As background, Ragsdale quickly recaps two other such convenings – one in 1974, called the First American Congress of Theater (FACT), and one that happened in 2011, called ACT TWO (clever, right?). In her description of FACT, she, drawing from the report written about that convening, says:
“The aim of the organizers of the First American Congress of Theater (FACT) in 1974 was to bring the leaders of American theater together to address a number of problems that could ‘no longer be dealt with effectively by any one segment of the community,’ including declining attendance and the need to stimulate youth and minority audiences, an economic recession, rising operating and production costs, and unreliable financing.”
This sentence caught me off-guard because, well, I still find myself caught off-guard when something that I feel is so idiosyncratically now—angst about youth and minority audiences, for example—is reframed as something that has been on the plate for 35 years. There is nothing new under the sun, it seems, and not in the arts, either.
I started getting this impulse to be incredulous at this idea—this idea that the theatre field would really have been so concerned about these same issues 35 years ago.
I found myself reflecting on the fact that in 1974, while of course we didn’t yet know it, the annual budget for the NEAwas marching upward toward what would be, in 1979, the largest NEA budget allocation ever when adjusted for inflation), when the agency budget made up .3% of the total US budget (compared to under .05% today—the smallest percentage of the US Budget in any year since the NEA was founded). The graph below, which I put together, looks at the NEA budget in actual dollars, inflated dollars, and as percentage of total budget–along with who was in power in each year (click to enlarge).
(Both of those percentages make me wince, and celebrating .3% as a high-water mark makes me sad.)
I found myself looking into US Census numbers and learning that, according to the 1970 US Census, there were an estimated 178,580,000 white people in the US, making up a whopping 87% of the population. By 2010, the percentage of whites in the country had gone down to 74%. In the Bay Area, from 1980 to 2010, the overall population rose by 2 million people, but we have experienced a net loss of over 500,000 white people, and a substantial rise instead in Hispanic and Asian citizens—and our overall Bay Area white, non-Hispanic population is currently 42%, putting us on the vanguard of that curious demographic issue known as the majority-minority society.
And, perhaps most importantly to this framing issue, I found myself noting that 1974 was two years after the Republican Party, in their convention party platform of 1972, professed, “For the future, we pledge continuance of our vigorous support of the arts and humanities,” and described the arts and humanities as a catalyst for “a richer life of the mind and the spirit.”
I’ve done some preliminary work looking at convention platforms and the NEA budget for a grant proposal we’re working on with Waller to better understand the effects of rhetoric on public perception and support of the arts over the past 50 years. It’s all early work, and incomplete, but from 1960 to 1972, the Republican platform did not mention art and the humanities at all, while the Democratic platform included soaring paragraphs about “encouraging and expanding participation in and appreciation of our cultural life” (1960). Over those twelve years, however, a clear linguistic shift occurred in the Democratic rhetoric: the seemingly innocuous insertion of the word “leisure” into the 1968 Democratic platform began a subtle but steady shift from portraying art as a necessity of civil society to art as a conduit to leisure. The term “productive leisure” cropped up in the 1968 Democratic platform, indicating a shift to a utilitarian or personal and individual view of art. When Republicans inserted a section on the arts and humanities into their platform in 1972, the rhetoric was, in many ways, more pro-arts than the corresponding section of the Democratic platform. The Republican platform described art and the humanities as a catalyst for “a richer life of the mind and the spirit,” and made reference to “our national culture.”
The 1972 Republican platform’s section on the arts and humanities closed with that sentence I quoted above: “For the future, we pledge continuance of our vigorous support of the arts and humanities.” By 1980, however, as Democratic platform rhetoric began to include verbiage like “the arts and humanities are a precious national resource,” Republican rhetoric shifted away from support of the NEA and public funding, and toward language that placed the burden for arts funding on the private sector and made government’s responsibility not direct funding, but tax incentives for private contributions. Over the ensuing sixteen years, Democratic platform rhetoric, while uniformly supportive of the place of arts in society, slowly transitioned to include more mention of the utilitarian aspects of art (education, literacy, etc) and to more consistently referencing private support alongside public. Republican support slowly eroded in that same period until, in 1996, the Republican platform expressly included a desire to defund the federal arts granting bodies, calling them “obsolete, redundant, [and] of limited value.”
(It is worth noting that, while that inclusion in 1996 is a huge landmark, the percolation around defunding the NEA started as early as 1980 with Ronald Reagan, who met enough resistance in Congress to the idea that he could only hobble the institution at the time.)
By 2000, Republicans had ceased talking about the arts and humanities at all, and “culture” was used only to reference concepts of morality and faith (13 times in the document). Over the past ten years, Democratic platforms mentioned arts and culture minimally and with vague expressions of support, while Republican platforms have discussed art not at all.
In short, between the rhetorical heyday of the 1970’s and today, we see the same problems in our perception, and are concerned about them in the same way. We claim to prize diversity, to be seeking out youth, to be worried about our financial model, our perception in society, our place. But the world has changed, and it’s hard for me to see how the world’s changing, in this context, has been anything but bad for our continued relevance in the conversation and support in the public space. With all of this information about the shifts that have happened since that first FACT meeting in the 1970’s, I can’t help but marvel at how much more urgent our angst is today, how difficult and necessary our task really is as a field, and how hard that task is going to be. Perhaps this is the hubris of being present in this moment, and as a colleague pointed out to me, everything looks rosier, or at least clearer, when all you have to reconstruct a moment is the orderly history that has been written down. All the same, this moment, now, as our Democratic president is about to move forward with limiting the tax-deductibility of charitable contributions and therefore lose our field tens of millions of dollars of support each year from private sources, I think I’m safe in saying we’re in trouble.
We suffer from a frame that couldn’t really be worse–inaccessible, elitist, luxurious, expensive, unnecessary, and unreflective. We live in a country that supports the (institutionalized—and I know there’s a big distinction there) arts less politically, rhetorically, and personally than at any other point in the past 50 years, that is muddling through a recession that is by most accounts worse than the recession in 1974, that has seen a precipitous decline in arts education and a precipitous rise in vitriol around art and it’s place in society. We live in a country where there are a million things to do, and within a population for many of whom attending a traditional arts event is low, low, low on the list.
It is always a problem when an era that seems rosy is revealed to have been fraught with the same anxieties as our own, and when in comparison our own era seems so much less hospitable to our continued existence than we thought (and honestly, we didn’t think much of its hospitability before).
In this environment, we must take a breath and understand the challenges we face, and we must work together to better understand how to face them. As individual artists, organizations, service organizations, arts agencies—whatever spot we take up in the arts bus—we need to stop discounting the changes around us, which I think we sometimes do when we don’t feel them in this moment, and to start getting smarter and more collaborative and more cooperative about how, when, and where we present our art and discuss our value. We need to, like any political movement, start figuring out how to speak with one voice, how to sing the same song—how to carry forward systematically and with shared purpose. We need to figure out ways of getting the great research that is being done, so dense and inaccessible when it’s sitting on the shelf, into the hands and minds of our soldiers, and need to learn how to turn everyone into a strong, strident arts advocate speaking from a place that is going to engender support, not throw up walls. We need to remind people that art is all around them, and that they are consuming it, reflecting back through it, living steeped in it like tea every day, and that the smell and the color and the texture of the work we make goes with them everywhere, and that that joyful humming of the world that comes from our art isn’t free, and is necessary, and is fragile and precious and in need of care.
This should come naturally to us, both because we all (one hopes) truly believe in the taste of this particular Kool-Aid and because we create messages designed to change the world every day. Let’s change the way the world sees us, too.