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Federal arts policy received not a whit of attention from either presidential campaign this year. I’m not surprised. Before I became a curator and museum director, I had a long career in political life. Over many years, I found most people who ran for office or had high-level political jobs singularly unfocused on the arts. Didn’t matter whether they were Republicans or Democrats. The nice surprise was the politico with a passion for art, dance, music, theater, film, or good writing. They do exist, and I enjoy hearing about their interests.
At one point I’ll write about why politics and the arts are a rarefied mix, but in this post I’ll suggest some new thinking the new order can bring specifically to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Some of these ideas can apply to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). I happen to know the NEA best.
I hope this post will start a smart conversation on the role the culture agencies can best serve in 2017 and beyond. I think the assumption now is that Congress will simply zero out the culture agencies. This would be so wrong and a missed opportunity.
I want the culture agencies to thrive. Since Trump’s the new boss, thrive they can in ways consistent with his campaign themes. These include support for quality and innovative programs freed from the dead weight of political correctness. Arts infrastructure needs to become a new priority. Let’s advance the public’s understanding of American art, the art of our own country. Let’s do more for theaters and museums between the narrow bands of our two coasts. The arts in schools need a new, sharper focus. And how about collection sharing that brings great art in storage at our big city museums on the two coasts to audiences in America’s heartland.
I read the list of recent NEA grant recipients. My sense is that spending goes in dribs and drabs to lots of programs and organizations spread over many Congressional districts. As Churchill said, “a pudding without a theme.” Many small things adding up to nothing big.
The money doesn’t seem to make big, promising things happen, things that wouldn’t happen otherwise. Much of the giving feels like disguised budget offset. The NEA’s goal looks like survival. It has been so beleaguered over the years, so pummeled, that its mission each year is to dodge the fatal bullet.
Yet the NEA – or federal funding for the arts – has served many great goals and can do it once more.
This starts with quality. First to go are projects whose principal goal is to feed the beast of racial, gender, or class dogma regardless of whether the art is, well, any good. I certainly did lots of shows on race, gender, and class, but the starting point was art of the very highest quality. Quality was the first order of business. This means intellectual rigor and a curiosity about different points of view.
Message – if arts venues want to mount boring, one dimensional, anti-historical, politically correct programs, let them find the money privately.
I raised $35 million for a museum renovation and addition, so I know fundraising for a renovation is difficult. It doesn’t pay for new and shiny things. It’s tough to get money for handicapped access, HVAC, a new roof, new storage, restored stages and new seating, more parking, or better security. Not much glamour. Yet the lack of these bricks and mortar essentials seriously hinders any organization regardless of its creative vision or ambition. A big priority of the new administration is infrastructure, and better arts infrastructure is a good philosophical fit. It’s foundational money, often hard to find, but you can’t do much without it. I’m a big believer in matching grant programs, with government cultural support leveraging private support to get basic infrastructure improvements done rather than deferred.
My academic specialty is American art. I was an American art curator and directed a distinguished museum, the Addison Gallery, dedicated to American art through the centuries. It’s the art of our country. I’ve done European art shows and enjoy good art, music, theater, and dance from any period or region. It does make sense, though, to make American culture first among equals in getting federal help. In the museum world, there are few institutional funders solely dedicated to American art, so I know the need is both there and often unmet. The government should help advance great art and scholarship from many cultures but I’d like to see American arts get some special attention.
To me, the arts and education are inseparable. When I was teaching art history, some of my best students were science majors. I learned a lot from them, especially about the aesthetics of many branches of the sciences and the creative spark the arts give to fledgling engineers, tech people, doctors, chemists, math geeks, and others whose intellectual home is the left side of the brain. The arts – visual arts, music, dance, theater, writing of all kinds among them – are more than leaveners. They promote outside the box thinking and both augment and enrich logical, analytical, and methodical inquiry. There’s lots of talk about STEM learning and teaching but not enough on how to get the arts in the mix to sharpen and deepen all minds.
I think the NEA has a bully pulpit – backed by some real power – fit to persuade big, encyclopedic museums in places like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston to share the wealth with the many fine museums in America’s heartland. These big museums have hundreds of thousands of objects, many great, in storage, rarely seen, not contributing to the education or the aesthetic joy of anyone. Long term loans – without expensive loan fees – to good museums throughout the country, in places that never had the money or collector base to generate great permanent collections, is a solid goal the NEA can achieve.
The culture agencies can accomplish plenty by stressing quality, collaboration, leverage, and learning. It’s a great time to make some needed, positive impact.