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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)

Hmmm, you missed including a designer. Here is more on the NEA and design:

I am far less concerned about how to best run the NEA than I am the NEH. 12% of the applications are funded - 12%!

The humanities could stand a little stimulus too - writers, historians, economists, political scientists and even English majors need work as well.

well i am a artist from france, and my country give to the arts 2 billions dollars,artists never see the money outside of few, But in the US the arts got last year 15,6 billions dollars in private donation, you have more museum ,concert hall coming up then few in europe, please stop complaning, watch your friend Obama, cuting taxes aventage, donations willbecome none existent, tell me who love the art, the left will never stop to amase, me not one country who say support the arts does check the facts please, a real artist who love america for her honesty for the good and the bad. God bless America.

Ann Coulter's comments are hilarious. Amazing what passes as "bile" today....
It is also funny that the LA Times features one conservative out of about 30 people and you're readers get riled up. This is why half of the country feels such a disconnect with the old media ,,, folks in the coastal cities seem to forget that about half of the country disagrees with liberal doctrine.
The NEA needs to be abolished and that "small" amount of money that is spent on the NEA is actually many millions every year. That money could be better spent in other places. Not to mention some folks don't want their tax money spent on issues like the arts.
Perhaps "privatizing" the NEA would actually increase it's effectiveness and draw out more donors to fund the arts. I know the "privatizing" word is controversial (especially in today's political climate), but history bears out that the markets work when left to do their work.
As Rothbard said;
Anti-State, Anti-War, Free Market!

I'm glad the bigotry against Conservatives is on full display here.

Hate is alive in America... but it's from the very people who pretend they're so much better than the rest of us.... but they're not

Everyone who commented has a valid point. Ann Coulter's comments should be used a mirror to analyze just what has gone too far from a balance appropriate for funding. Funding is not a "right" it is a privilege. I am an artist and any time there is funding I am thankful and in awe. I do feel a great need for artists of all kinds to think more in terms of community vs personal gains. It saddens me that there is so much anger over the idea that artists should be accountable when public monies are spent on our skills and resources. If there are monies made available, then are not those doing the funding the "client"? If an individual wants to fund the work then freedom to do whatever is available, but there seems to be a short term perspective on creative skills and serving humanity these days.

A greater degree of visibility for the arts in the White House would be most welcome, and so would a greater degree of coherence in arts policy. Currently, arts and culture fall under the fractured jurisdiction of Departments of State, Interior, Treasury, Education, Transportation, Homeland Security, and the Internal Revenue Service, in addition to the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

Here are three low-cost, high-impact steps that arts and cultural leadership in the Obama White House might take towards a more coherent national arts policy: (1) lead through stimulus and diplomacy; (2) follow private, state and local programs that work; and (3) eliminate harmful regulations.

(1) Lead through stimulus and diplomacy: In addition to their intrinsic value – to express, inspire, console and delight – the arts have much to contribute to the nation’s top priorities, particularly economic recovery at home and mending tattered relations abroad.

Many studies document the economic impact of arts centers on their local economies. An arts component to the recovery package could create good jobs, not just for artists but also for workers in construction, operations, hospitality and IT, among other fields.

American arts should also work hand in hand with national security. Targeted cultural diplomacy efforts, such as tours of American performers abroad through the US Agency for International Development, could help win back friends worldwide. National security know-how and funding can help shield cultural facilities at home from terrorist attack.

(2) Follow private, state and local programs that work:
The economic climate makes it unlikely that governmental funding of the arts will increase anytime soon. And mixing art and government can spell political trouble, especially at the federal level.

Despite good work by recent leadership of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities to rehabilitate their stature after the culture wars of the post-Mapplethorpe era, their budgets are infinitesimal, and their activities are marginal to the work of the nonprofit cultural sector.

State and local governmental arts councils and commissions have more arts funding muscle, collectively control and disburse 5-10 times as many grant dollars as the NEA. The localities are excellent laboratories and conduits for public arts funding and stewardship, grappling with how best to support worthy activities while assuring accountability to local constituencies and managing political relationships.

The nonprofit cultural sector has figured out a lot on its own about art’s relevance to public concerns, including public health, improvements to public school curricula, aging, veterans’ affairs, assimilation of immigrants, and even corrections. Imagine the world of good that could be done by arts leadership in DC just by publicizing and commending the best of these efforts, enabling their private sector proponents to leverage the federal imprimatur into more private donor dollars and sharpening the spade of others who might undertake similar efforts.

Arts-friendly policies need not be expensive. The federal government could follow the example of enlightened states and municipalities that use dedicated revenue streams to fund arts and cultural programs. Some 40 communities nationwide dedicate a portion of hotel/motel taxes to arts and cultural programs, acknowledging that cultural activity attracts tourism. Florida dedicates a portion of its budget from corporate filing fees to the state’s Cultural Affairs Division. California dedicates the extra revenue collected for arts-related specialty license plates. Alabama provides for voluntary contributions to the arts through an income tax check-off. Following this lead, tax laws at the federal level could be adjusted in inexpensive ways to benefit both the sector and public as a whole. For example, tax laws should be rearranged to incent artists to donate their artwork to charity auctions in support of PTAs, hospitals, and community centers; to encourage wealthy taxpayers to contribute more; and to reward taxpayers for increases in year-over-year charitable giving.

(3) Eliminate harmful regulations: The nonprofit sector is heavily regulated, with the IRS and state Charities Bureaus overseeing many aspects of governance and fundraising. This regulation is the necessary counterpart to the valuable tax exemption that charities enjoy. But there appears to be momentum toward greater regulation of the sector by both IRS and immigration officials, and someone in a coordinating role might give some thought to the impact on the arts specifically.

President-elect Obama is right that art and our culture are the essence of what makes America special, and worthy of an expanded role in the White House. Now is the time to unleash their power to move, to help get our country’s most important work done.

--Lesley Friedman Rosenthal is VP General Counsel of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

I don't know about running the NEA, and if I ran this paper, I'd have given this wonderful article to someone who knows something about web design, because this layout is slow loading, annoying, confusing, and user unfriendly.

If were chairman of the NEA, I would work to abolish it. Failing that, however, I would reverse the long-standing practice of approving grants to organizations sponsoring contemporary work that is not art by any objective measure.

Under my watch, for example, the charlatan who persuaded hair salons in a New York City neighborhood to allow children between eight and twelve to offer the public free haircuts for a period of one week would never have had the chance to even try. And the two individuals critical of the Guantanamo detention camp who traveled across the country in a van conducting interviews and holding public discussions on security, terror, and human rights would have had to pay their own way. Both “visual arts” projects were made possible through NEA grants to the same avant-garde organization.

These are not isolated examples. I document numerous others as well in “The Arts and Public Support” (search for it in the recently published ‘Encyclopedia of Libertarianism,’ at Amazon.com); “The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant-Garde” (forthcoming this month in Aristos); and ‘What Art Is,’ which I co-authored in 2000.

Louis Torres
Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

While the NEA does a lot that affects my life in a major visible and economic way (I work in nonprofit arts), I would also dispense with many grants to arts institutions. Many of the institutions struggling to receive funding are also struggling for relevance in contemporary society. The government should not be buttressing organizations and art forms that don't mean something to the country at large, and this seems to be a totally backwards approach in terms of American values in the first place. Just like we provide tax incentives and special deals to corporations who do business the way we want them to, how about we provide incentives to the arts market - give people a reason to engage in the benefits of art? Like a good matching grant, the NEA could be a leveraging tool in investments. For every person who sees a play, visits a museum, or tours a historical site, the National Endowment could match their cultural investment in themselves with $5 toward further education on a voucher system. That way, the people who pursue their own cultural enrichment are given additional means to improve themselves while making cultural activities more attractive to success-oriented individuals.

are you sure there was only one conservative featured in the nea article? look more closely--liberals are only 'liberal' until someone disagrees with them.

If i was head of the NEA, How could i possibly decide who to give the piddly 200 mil to? You, The Ahmenson, The Roundabout, a small theatre company, a few schools for a few music programs. A couple of grants or installations? Which? How do you choose, by what criteria? How bout we send .002 cents to every kid in the country and call it a day (because the postage would cost 950 million). As an Obama appointee I'd have to invest it in endeavors that didn't criticize the war effort Isreal Jesus Islam Budah Hawaii Kenya Yale Indiana the CFR the FDA the UN the NAU the WTO the CIA. Or if the NEA could raise a 50mil more we could get Tim Burton to make a good 5th sequel to Batman and have Obama star in it (the Joker) make the money back at the box office and generate some income to put back into the more necessary government activities like health safety n cleaning up big messes other more heavily funded departments have made. Instead I'll take your tax money get a nice salary and dole out cash to politically relevant programs for kickbacks.
The last thing we need is for Washington to tell us what theatre to do. What songs to sing. What to paint or sculpt. Perhaps the best use is to buy art for public spaces. But the design of parks and roads already incorporates much art and probably uses 100times more than 200 mil of taxpayer money already. In all probability the 200 mil after salary and administrative expenses can barely buy the NEA art for its own offices. If they even have any.

I would change the slogan of the NEA to IT TAKES GREAT ART TO BUILD A GREAT NATION rather than “a great nation deserves great art.” Part of the problem with the NEA is that most Americans really don't believe we need or deserve great art. Now football, that's another story. Cancel the Super Bowl and there'd be riots in the streets of every major city. But cancel all of the operas or ballets in the country and you wouldn't hear a peep. We need to make art NECESSARY in this country, not just something we "deserve". The value of art is understood in other countries around the world and it should be the NEA's work to create that appetite across America. They should start in the schools.

Jay McAdams
Executive Director
24th Street Theatre

Response to Ali -- Many of us don't want our tax money spent on war either. Does that mean we can abolish the Pentagon and free up those BILLIONS of dollars to be spent in better places?

A poem by 12th Century Anonymous

If thou of fortune be bereft,
And in thy house there be but left
Two loaves, sell one, and with the dole,
Buy hyasinths to feed your soul.

Can we humans have been wrong for almost a century now about beauty(arts) and its impact on our well being ?

Vince's remarks are hilarious.

"I'm glad the bigotry against Conservatives is on full display here. Hate is alive in America... but it's from the very people who pretend they're so much better than the rest of us.... but they're not."

I think you're pointing the finger in the wrong direction - it is you who think you're better than everyone else - it is you who makes no room for the ideas of others - it is you who still play politics as usual at a time when we must resolve issues that are crippling our country. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. So stop the rhetoric and try to frame your ideas constructively or just go to a country where everyone is forced to think the same way since that is the environment you seem to be aiming for.

That is the country both left and right want to send their "enemies". Both are idiots, and self absorbed, just one waves the flag and cross to cover up their own inadequacies and decadence, the other glorifying the individual, themselves, and how they are mini gods and so have no obligation to be rational and even handed. Seeing that there is more than one side to things, theirs.

The center must hold, and reject the insanity of the wings.

art collegia delenda est

I would visit every state in the union and identify the funding gaps for the arts in rural and underserved communities.
I would completly overhaul the current funding structure and make it easier for communities and organizations to compete for funding.
I would provide more funding for schools and communities so that more youth could be inspired by the arts.
I would use the NEA to encourage all communities to value the arts.
I would implement an awareness campaign that made everyone aware of the important role of the arts in all aspects of life.
I would use NEA funding to reach youth who have dropped out or given up.
I would use the NEA to bring people together across race, age, economic, and social lines.

I agree with Mr. Labute: More funding for dance!

I think that a lot of these people have good ideas, its great to fund the arts, I am all for that, but at the same time, some of these artists may take it a little too far. We can't throw theatre in people's faces and people's tax dollars should be spent towards building roads and the essentials, some for theatre to introduce it in schools so kids can be exposed to theatre and become more cultured, but I think that it would be better to pay less taxes and use your money towards what you want to spend it on and that may even encourage people to go see more shows. Giving funding to theatres does help with jobs and so that's great, but any more than necessary I think is for the people to decide what to do with the money, theatre is not for everyone, even though I may love theatre.
I really like the idea though that actors who get federal funding should go and talk at schools for free because that is a great way to introduce kids to theatre and help them expand their horizons.

As the head of the NEA i would fight to bring the focus of the arts back to the schools. Most high schools and middle schools funnel most of their funding into the maths and sciences, and give the extras to sports. As the head of the NEA i would make sure that the arts were brought up to the same level of importance. High schools theatre is such an amazing outlet for students, and is a distraction form the drugs and alcohol that pollute so many sutents lives. Theatre is a distraction and a way of expressing yourself in a different way.

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