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If I ran the NEA...

February 27, 2009 | 12:00 pm

The slogan of the National Endowment for the Arts is “a great nation deserves great art.”

Were it only that simple.

When Congress voted on President Obama’s $787-billion stimulus package, fiscal conservatives slammed the NEA’s $50-million allocation. It wasn’t the first time the agency, whose 2008 budget was about $144 million, had been thrust under the microscope.

Since awarding its first grant in 1965, the NEA most famously riled opponents in the early 1990s with its plan to award grants to a quartet of controversial artists. As the president prepares to name a new NEA chief, we asked people from the arts and other fields to share what their priorities would be if they ran the cultural agency.

Click on the photos in the grid above to see what our contributors had to say. Then let us know what you would do if you ran the NEA.

--Lisa Fung

Comments () | Archives (40)

First off, I would make sure whoever ran the NEA had no art degree, a bigger waste of time, money and paper never existed on earth. Where are the checks and ballances? These types only help one another, and have very limted visions of what art is and means to humanity. Its a closed club of entitlements and self absorbtion, so bring in someone with knowledge and love of art, but not brainwashed by the current equivalent of the 19th century Salon, Only those in the club get accepted, and only those with equvalent mediocre goals and abilities get advanced.

Then, no individual grants, period. Only to those who have proven their cultural worth, not Society types for the entertainmesnt of the rich alone. Not pseudo intellectual arguments, but works that bring an intensity of life to us, that which strives for and attains what Creative art truly is. Not Fine arts for the rich, not Decorative for backgrounds and framed wallpaper. Not Therapy art for the self absorbed, Not Intellectual games to entertain the wealthy with absurdist works.

No, the NEA should be for Creative Art alone, works that pursue Arts true Purpose. Defining Mankind, Exploring Nature, and Searching for God. But the Academys want there to be no Purpose, no Definition, No Reason for Art, For it is now a commodity, for sale, degraded, decadent. Let the Market support these other forms of selfishness, the Meism of the Age of Excess is over. Contempt Art left as road kill, DOA.

If monies must be spent on the arts, it must be for common cause, for defining our Nation, our goals, our needs. Though true creative artists are tied to no nation, they are concerned with all of humanity, will Americans want to spend their tax monies for that? Not if it is wasted with the other rifraf, what has turned off 99.9% of America from the arts, only a small group use it now, unless theatres playing Our Town over and over. Thats fine, so that is where the monies should go.

Not every town needs a symphony however. If the locals cant support it why should we spend money for life support? there are other forms of art just as good, thats for the rich. Jazz is our art form, yet gets tiny amounts of monies, practically none. Let it go to presenting ALL collaborative arts, not to individuals. Spend the monies on those who have a proven track record, who draw people in, because they have something to share. If they dont, then they are not necessary, or need to go work alone, and better themselves off the public dole.

it is time to be responsible, in the arts as in all spheres of our livse, we have not bee for far too long. It is about Us, not artists. Art matters, not the people who amke it. No more than any other group, and if not proven in the marketplace of human need, save the money for a rainy day, for that day is here. And need is in many areas of our lives.

art collegia delenda est

Dear Ms. Fung,

Why do you give a platform to Ann Coulter and her self-serving, hate-mongering bile? I thought the Los Angeles Times was better than that.

Art Manke

Actually, Art, the purpose of the media in this country is to expose people to ideas different to their own. Coulter might be insane, but she is entitled to be heard.

Bill Maher's answer is more what I would expect from Ann Coulter. Still, I agree with him. Abolish it.

I see real value in the vision statements presented by a few of the interviews posted, namely Kurt Anderson and Jon Robin Baitz.

I have restated a some of their ideas and added a few of my own in numbered suggestions for how I would coordinate NEA funding.

As an artist, educator, community activist, documentarian, and citizen, I would fund...

1.) A national system that creates a synthesis of young and old artists from across many disciplines to teach in schools and community centers that have lost funding for programs in the arts.

2.) Programs for artists, teachers, sociologists, politicos, workers, managers, business owners, and entrepreneurs to engage in generating extended collaborative artistic and creative training workshops and performances carefully addressing pressing social needs to be presented in all political and cultural environments ranging from the White House, Congress, Wall Street, courtrooms, galleries, restaurants, shipyards, hospitals, schools, churches, police precincts, shopping centers, to food banks, detention centers, jails, prisons, and homeless shelters.

3.) Commissions awarded to teaching artists of all levels of artistic status to create uniquely structured tour able performance lectures and workshop residencies designed to teach critical thinking skills and creative problem solving in order to engage citizens in a purposeful way with each other. These workshops could be topic-specific and offered to social service groups, underserved populations, the uneducated, the ill, the aged, the impoverished, and homeless. Have those same artists develop engaged and lasting partnerships with community members and their communities. Engage the corporations, small business owners, and non-profit organizations (including education and government) to coordinate programming for infrastructural development that supports community empowerment through activism. Forge alliances across cultures, sub-cultures, class, gender, religious, ideological, and language divides.

4.) Frequent town halls to be offered in lovely settings that are free to the public and are structured to encourage large and small community discussion groups. Allow structured time and space to be made available for sustained and open community discussions with trained moderators who know how to facilitate deep dialectical exchanges that encourage critical thinking skills and goodwill. Too often talks are one-sided, too short, taken over by hostile audience members, and moderated to address only a few ideas that are never fully explored. Audience members leave unfulfilled and frustrated by the lack of true discourse. Usually the audience feedback is just a way for struggling non-profits to obtain more funding and, as a result, is unsuccessful in forming lasting community engagements.

5.) Programs supporting creative partnerships and/or strategic alliances across the arts, industry, and education. Linking non-profits working alongside profits. Not simply to facilitate a better public relations image or tax-write off but in order to forge a true coalescence of forces, intents, purposes, and interactions. One example: Artists, architects, landscape designers, and city urban planners work in conjunction with City of LA Neighborhood Councils and the Million Trees Project to beautify and plant trees in blighted neighborhoods. Beautify the environments for everyone to enjoy. Add fountains with recyclable rainwater. Afterwards, have performing playwrights, poets, composers, musicians, dancers, videographers, and cultural ethnographers regularly perform in these urban idylls and interview residents about the change in the aesthetics of their neighborhoods. Coordinate and present the responses into a mediacized performance in different locations throughout the city and have members of the community, the city officials, and entrepreneurs hear how the community feels about having a more beautiful park-like green environments. Document the journey across the city into another documentary that is made available to educators, policy makers and community members for free and can be seen on YouTube.

6.) Vision Centers that bring together great thinkers and creatives, (similar to TED) to share, consider, discuss and vett new ideas through community dialogues what the community members really need and want. Then answer those needs with ongoing skills training, workshops and artistic performances addressing those ideas and developing initiatives.

7.) Archive quality video documentation of all the NEA funded activities coordinating artists with collaborating visual artists, composers, choreographers, videographers and editors charged with the task of making new art of the art that has been created within communities and position it all on YouTube for all to experience and enjoy.

Art does not just happen. It is cultivated. It fails and then succeeds. It needs time. It needs love. It needs support. It needs feedback. It needs funding.

Artists need funding.

Furthermore, the arts and education is not a one-way delivery system but a much needed collaborative relationship joining individuals and organizations. Non-profits dedicated to creating art need to refocus their purpose to not only producing artistic product, that may or may not tour to underserved or underprivileged communities, as suggested by many of your interviewees, but also teach and share the process of living artfully by creating sustaining engagements within those communities regardless of the artistic genre.

One way to encourage a win-win engagement is to allow artists, community organizers, activists, teachers, intellectuals, politicians, and citizens of ALL ages to be a part of the artistic creative process. Include funding for a deeper artistic happening that is structured in multiple dimensions of interaction through talks, master classes, developmental workshops, demonstration, and free artistic documentation, regardless if it is an art exhibition, dance concert, solo performance, spoken word event, dance, concert, staged reading, or fully produced theatre play.

Allow the artists to speak purposefully to their artistic process as well as the product cultivated by the funding and witnessed by the audience. Provide the much needed time and space for the artist to interact with the audience. To articulate why art was a path chosen in life. How the aesthetic is/was formed. Time and space to build bridges for all experiencing the artistic work to walk across…so each one can be empowered in an artistic way of learning, inquiring, exploring, thinking, responding to, and living.

The goal of the artistic work should be to stimulate the dialogues that lead one to more skilled, purposeful, philosophic, creative, and critical thinking life style.

Finally, to all the naysayers of public funding, please consider that watching film, television, late night talk shows, or listening to hate radio has had more to do with our culture declining, more to do with the numbing apathy, more to do with the young and old becoming alienated, being addicted to video games and internet pornography than any failed, misguided and poorly funded artistic project or self-important 'status-hungry' struggling artist.

Art can heal. Art can teach. Art can save lives, but only through collaborative and purposeful communication.

We all need to connect in positive ways with each other in order to feel a more vital part of our families, communities, and society at large. Once the basics are met, we, as active citizens living within a society, need to learn and grow in knowledge and experience. There is no better path to enrich one’s soul, mind and heart than the arts. ALL OF THE ARTS!

In the history of the world, the best artist, in every society, emerges as a sage, a truth teller, a heartfelt communicator, and a caring teaching practitioner who lives to give back to the community. Someone seeking a unique way to celebrate and interpret the times he/she/we are living. However, throughout time and to this present moment, too many truly talented people are never able to reach their true creative and artistic potential, are never developed primarily because of the lack of funding and the fierce competitiveness that suppresses more egalitarian noncompetitive artists and practitioners.

Each citizen in our country needs to seriously consider why we are so easily manipulated, so deeply in debt, so alienated from one another, so cynical, so frightened, so addicted, so intolerant, so filled with hate, so unfaithful, so disdainful of the “other”, and so violent. My answer is we do not know one another. We only know the other when we dialogue. We do not dialogue until we share a positive growth experience. But most of the time we do not talk with one another. We do not share. We do not create. And as a result, we do not care about one another or the world.

The arts can create a more purposeful dialogue. Greater caring can result.

NEA funding is one vital step in the direction of improving our selves, our communities, and our nation.

Tim Miller got it right. NEA needs to support individual artists and institutions that will provoke all of us to think and feel differently about the world around us. Also, a much stronger connection must be established between artists and communities of color, young people and poor people. Artists can inspire us to find our own creativity and challenge our political views. The NEA needs to establish some bold initiatives and stop worrying about a backlash from the right.

Neil Labute is funny, but is he serious? Ann Coulter is is a lunatic, is she serious? And who knew Noah Wyle was so smart?

Can we encourage Robbie Baitz to take on, reimagine and create the NEA he so brilliantly envisions. The United States is so far behind Canada, Britian, Germany and too many other nations - all dedicating a much higher percentage of tax income per capita to supporting grants and endowments for the arts.

Susan Sprott
Sag Harbor, NY

If the NEA supports individual artists, it becomes the arbiter of taste. Its funding tacitly endorses the content of the work. This is wrong. Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for the development and exhibition of other people's perspectives. The work will stand on its own. If the artist wishes to find a private benefactor, or if a private citizen wishes to establish a foundation, I'm all for it. If Tim Miller is so talented and his vision that integral, he should be able to find funding from someplace other than the coercion of the taxpayer.
I wonder how Mr Manke would feel if he were forced to pay a portion of his paycheck to sponsor Ann Coulter or anyone else whose points of view he disagrees with?
Now a National Endowment for Arts Education? That might be something worth considering, although an increase in the quality of public education - one that does not encourage young people to look to their government to sponsor them but rather gives them the intellectual ability to operate freely and do for themselves - may do the trick as well.

While I believe in support of the arts and that government should foster an environment of that support, I'm not sure direct funding of the arts is an appropriate role for government in this country. The U.S. is and should be different. With that said, I would not abolish the NEA but rather use it as a bully pulpit, leverage its funding to create aggressive campaigns to solicit private support of the arts and publicly highlight the importance of the arts. And perhaps I would use it to fund arts education classes, after school programs, etc. These are the roles that government and the NEA should play here, and I believe such a strategy would lead to overall more support of the arts than we have currently.

Donald Frazel - Seriously...sounds like every other sector of our government AND private sector in this country...so why not the art world?? Furthermore, I have an art degree sir, from Parson's, and it made me more money than my brother - a successful Doctor.

"First off, I would make sure whoever ran the NEA had no art degree, a bigger waste of time, money and paper never existed on earth. Where are the checks and balances? These types only help one another, and have very limited visions of what art is and means to humanity. Its a closed club of entitlements and self absorbtion, so bring in someone with knowledge and love of art, but not brainwashed by the current equivalent of the 19th century Salon, Only those in the club get accepted, and only those with equivalent mediocre goals and abilities get advanced.

I love PBS and the many educational programs the channel airs for adults and children. Thank you NEA! I disagree with the call for abolishing the NEA. I would rather spend my tax money promoting and teaching the arts in the U.S. than a single dime on rich bankers and stockbrokers on Wall Crook's St. I would rather spend tax money in America than BILLIONS of American's tax money on countries in the middle east such as Israel, Egypt, and Iraq. Let Maher and Coulter send THEIR money to support their favorite country. I agree with Tim Robbin's ideas for using NEA money. Education for children's art programs.

First of all, the NEA budget is so small, in no way does giving grants to individual artists make it an 'arbiter of taste.' Second, anybody who thinks artists don't work hard and do it for themselves in America knows nothing of artists or their lives. The artists I know work much harder than just about anybody I know for a 16th of the money and give a huge percentages of their time to helping others for free. (Doing literacy work for example in the schools that have no arts programs or in prisons or the inner city.) Artists in America get less support than artists almost anywhere in the free world, and therefore it is pop culture and t.v. that is the 'arbiter of taste' in America - which is a shame because generally pop culture and t.v. are pretty tasteless and very un-diverse. i.e. nobody over 20 need apply and the 'lookism' and sexism is appalling so - be gorgeous, young, buff and do one of the only four kinds of music sanctioned by the pop music industry (country,rap, rock, or pop) or do not apply - which leaves many amazing actresses and musicians of great ability and great diversity begging. The NEA is only a drop in the bucket towards evening out the odds for the many great practitioners of music and art who live in poverty despite their very concrete contributions to society and the economy, and who are yet ignored in America. And I get sick of the self-righteous and anti-art attitudes of so many people who know nothing about artists and what they do. Maher, you are a millionaire entertainment czar - part of the Hollywood ruling class. Get a grip and share some of your wealth if you are so righteous. Get informed, then speak, Your casual hostility speaks volumes about you and says nothing about art or artists or the worth of them in America.

Ann Coulter. Now there's an arbiter of great taste...NOT!

No wonder nobody buys this paper anymore.

Aside from investing in individual artists, one of the most important things the NEA could do is to open the doors of most local and national art museums to a much broader segment of the public with free or significantly reduced admission via an innovative national campaign like Great Britain's. The British program started under Tony Blair became such an essential in the public mind that when Gordon Brown took over and discussed closing it down, there was a huge outcry--in just 10 years of broad public access, art had become a right, not a privilege for the well-heeled few. Free admission seems like a risky step for institutions that are already squeezed to within an inch of foreclosure, but broad government support made it possible to turn around the perception of art as something only for middle-aged millionaires.

Free and reduced admission, combined with active outreach, is especially important for older teens, college students, and young working people, who often get shortchanged or overlooked as an art audience. They're no longer dragged along on the requisite school field trips, and they're not established enough at work to afford full-fare admission in a lot of the leading museums. But they're at the critical age for forging their own tastes and enthusiasms, for discovering art without their parents or teachers pushing them. If they don't start to connect with art in significant enough numbers to make it a cultural expectation, where do you think you're going to get the next generation of artists, patrons, curators and conservators?

I guess the LA Times would have us believe that we lack diversity in the arts. You have one Latino, one sort of Asian, and a couple of African Americans. Please take down the whites only sign at the LA Times.

As a performing artist (formerly a Broadway actress, now a cabaret and concert singer), I have a passionate and personal interest in the health of the arts in this country. I agree wholeheartedly with Edward Albee, Tim Robbins and Sondra Tsing Loh on many of the points they made, and think that Bill Maher and Ann Coulter could go live on an island where there is no art whatsoever... they could see how rich their lives are then, devoid of any expression of the human spirit, with only each other's literal presence to disagree with. I am sure that TV and movie stars do not have this problem, but us "working class" artists who don't have the luxury of fame to keep us employed have to sweat for every opportunity to have our work seen and heard, and these opportunities, if we can find them, are often not very lucrative for us. If we, as a "developed country", want to keep art "for the people" instead of being exclusively for the elite, we need to take the responsibility to fund our artists big time, because true art (of any ilk) takes time, probably more time than anyone who isn't an artist by profession may realize, and time is money. And if artists are busy looking for wealthy patrons (who are they, by the way, Mr Maher?) they aren't producing art. Yes to arts education in schools and yes to government underwriting of qualified arts organizations(big, small and solo). Especially in these tenuous economic times, we need to keep our artists thriving, otherwise we are a (so-called) world power without any heart. I think we can do much better than that.

Clearly, Ann Coulter and some people chosing to make comments on this article have never seen the transformation of poor children when given their chance to tell their story through theatre. Art heals. This country is in desperate need of it. And it is cheaper than the drugs, alcohol & food pumped into our depressed, overweight bodies while we try to mask the feeling of insignificance we live with on a daily basis. My best friend has been a teaching artist for over 5 years and the work he has done has been extraordinary and impossible without a grant from the city. I look forward to art flourishing during this dark time, despite what the nay-sayers & dream-squashers have to say about my worth as an artist. Shame on you, Bill Maher, You should know better.

P.S. Rachel Maddow, when are you going to run for prez.? I suggest after Obama's eight it is your turn. This country needs your brain at the top. I and everybody I know will vote for you.

Why should the NEA support arts education in schools? Isn't that really the responsibility of the Department of Education? Education Secretary Arne Duncan should redefine the core curriculum in public schools, to ensure that art, music, theater and dance are considered essential to a quality education, just like English and math. The NEA should focus on supporting artists, of many diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, and encouraging the general public to experience their works.

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