Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. The Arts in 2017

 

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.

There are 55 comments.

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  1. Franz Drumlin Member

    The amount of dough handed out by the Feds for art is piffling in terms of the Federal budget, but hardly trivial to art institutions who are struggling to survive. And survive they must, whether in big cities or small towns. But the biggest boon Donald Trump can bestow on institutions that provide art to the public is a healthy, vibrant economy. When people have discretionary income they buy tickets to theater, go to concerts, take out a membership in the local art museum. When companies are flush they are more likely to donate to the Symphony or the Ballet just to have their name inscribed in plaques on the wall.

    • #1
    • January 21, 2017, at 8:47 AM PST
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  2. Rodin Member

    The key point in the OP is “leverage”. Trump has some experience with this and it should be made clear to the “finer” institutions (including PBS) that continued support requires support for an arts agenda that is not ideologically driven and which concentrates the benefits in large urban centers.

    • #2
    • January 21, 2017, at 8:48 AM PST
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  3. Publius Inactive

    The federal government does not, nor should it, have any role in becoming a patron of the arts. It’s a microscopic bit of the federal budget, but it’s long since past time for the NEA to be shut down. It’s not like there wasn’t any art in the United States prior to 1965.

    • #3
    • January 21, 2017, at 8:51 AM PST
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  4. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Didn’t I read this same post a month ago?

    • #4
    • January 21, 2017, at 8:59 AM PST
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  5. Randy Webster Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    Didn’t I read this same post a month ago?

    I recognized at least parts of it.

    • #5
    • January 21, 2017, at 9:07 AM PST
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  6. Doug Kimball Thatcher

    Art is neither protest nor shock. Controversial is not necessarily good. Art is not meant to make a point.

    The NEA’s subsidies are the Art world’s deaf and blind patrons, It’s time for art to appeal to patrons with real sense. It’s time to stop subsidizing the charlatans.

    • #6
    • January 21, 2017, at 9:12 AM PST
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  7. The Reticulator Member

    BrianVermont: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.

    I want cultural institutions to thrive, and I want federal funding for them to be zero. Separation of Arts and State is what’s needed at the federal level, for many of the same reasons we have Separation of Church and State.

    It would be nice to go to a concert and not learn that by attending I am not complicit in the system by which the federal government uses the lash to extract money off the bloodied backs of unwilling taxpayers. How is one supposed to enjoy the music under those circumstances? Mrs R and I used to go to concerts much more frequently, and often took the kids back in the old days; but now each time we go I have to hear the message about how it is supported by a federal grant or federal funding. So we don’t go much any more.

    When I see historical museums being supported at the township government level, on the other hand, I like that. I’m starting to put together a database of where that happens.

    There is more to say, but I’m going out for a bicycle ride now.

    • #7
    • January 21, 2017, at 9:31 AM PST
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  8. Painter Jean Member

    As an artist, this subject is of particular interest to me.

    I am emphatically opposed to government funding of the arts, period. That the amount spent is a miniscule fraction of discretionary spending matters not one bit, as it’s the principle here that is important.

    I had some experience with a state-funded program (Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program – MAEP) many moons ago, and it taught me a great deal – in short, that the picking of the winners of public largesse is often dictated by political and politically correct considerations. In this particular case, the election of artists to a review board that would determine exhibition opportunities for individual artists was contentious, with the contemporary faction determined that no one with a background in Classical Realism – or any realism – was welcome. Ever. The religious background of one of the painters was held up as evidence of his anti-intellectualism and overall backwardness, with one of his paintings which could be interpreted as anti-abortion regarded with horror and disgust (this from “artists” who couldn’t paint an intelligible image to save their lives. They won the battle, by the way – no classical realist has ever been allowed). No, the government has no business picking winners and losers. If people value their artists, theaters, and orchestras enough, they will support them through private means.

    • #8
    • January 21, 2017, at 9:36 AM PST
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  9. MLH Inactive
    MLH

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    the government has no business picking winners and losers

    This, in all spending.

    • #9
    • January 21, 2017, at 9:58 AM PST
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  10. Dave Matheny Member

    I am an actual artist. I have supported myself with my illustration (and writing) for decades. I will never get any kind of government grant, not because I’m not good — I am damn good, in fact — but because I don’t swim in those waters. People with zero talent find grant money if they know the right people. I caution everybody who is thinking about this subject to realize that it’s not as if you put money in the top of some vending-machine-like device, pull the lever, and collect art from the tray at the bottom. What comes out the bottom is worthless.

    However, the art vending machine does exist, and it’s where that money goes — to feed the machine itself, primarily, along with a little bit for crappy art. Eliminate the art establishment and you might — just might — see a lot less craptacular art on display.

    • #10
    • January 21, 2017, at 10:12 AM PST
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  11. Painter Jean Member

    When I see historical museums being supported at the township government level, on the other hand, I like that.

    I like it too — it’s local and doesn’t involve the government picking winners and losers. It is beneficial to the culture, but avoids the slavering at the trough of grant money by “artists” who are largely interested in thumbing their government-fed noses at the rest of us.

    • #11
    • January 21, 2017, at 10:20 AM PST
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  12. Painter Jean Member

    BrianVermont: 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.

    Brian,

    Your thoughtful post deserves more attention than my initial reaction gives it. So let me address what I see as the primary fault in your post, namely, your invoking “quality” as a standard. Anyone looking at contemporary art should realize that it is, above all else, a rejection of standards — that is its point. It is a rejection of what came before, and that means the standards by which our culture held up as “great” artists such as Velasquez, Sargent, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Alma-Tadema, Bougereau….and so on. So what does “quality” look like in contemporary “art”, and who decides?

    I tell my students that great art has to have a number of attributes: One, it must have workmanship, meaning the artist knows his technical craft (some modern artists’ works are crumbling because they didn’t know or care about the technical aspects of their craft) and can wield his tools effectively; Two, it must have intelligibility, because it’s the artist who presumably has the skill-set and talent to express – continued –

    • #12
    • January 21, 2017, at 10:51 AM PST
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  13. Painter Jean Member

    – continued from above – what he is trying to convey. I expect the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker to have difficulties in intelligibly expressing artistic aspirations, not the artist. If I have to read a didactic panel in order to learn what an artist is trying to express, or if it is unintelligible or unrecognizable, then the artist has failed, just as a writer will fail as a writer if he throws a jumble of words together with no structure or intelligibility. Three, there must be some kind of order — a guy running around screaming at the top of his lungs or banging at a piano with closed fists may very well be expressing himself, but it ain’t Mozart or Beethoven, and never will be. But yet, in the visual arts at least, that is precisely what we are supposed to accept as “enlightened”. Great paintings of the past demonstrate order — the selection and arrangement of shapes, colors, and values, all ordered to convey an intelligible visual picture. Four, there must be Beauty. This is not in the same category as the other items, as it’s both an element and a result. I’m not talking about the obviously “pretty” — a good artist can reveal the beauty in an ordinary cabbage — but rather something transcendent and universal.

    Contemporary art has enthusiastically rejected just those attributes. How are you going to judge “quality”, then?

    • #13
    • January 21, 2017, at 11:06 AM PST
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  14. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    Didn’t I read this same post a month ago?

    I recognized at least parts of it.

    Text comparison confirms that there are at least a few differences, highlighted in this screenshot:

    • #14
    • January 21, 2017, at 12:08 PM PST
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  15. Publius Inactive

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    In this particular case, the election of artists to a review board that would determine exhibition opportunities for individual artists was contentious, with the contemporary faction determined that no one with a background in Classical Realism – or any realism – was welcome. Ever.

    He who pays the piper painter, calls the tune brush strokes.

    • #15
    • January 21, 2017, at 1:39 PM PST
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  16. Painter Jean Member

    Publius (View Comment):
    He who pays the piper painter, calls the tune brush strokes.

    If that were true, then most public art would never see the light of day, as taxpayers would likely reject the “turd in the plaza” public monstrosities that have been inflicted upon them by their own dollars.

    • #16
    • January 21, 2017, at 1:59 PM PST
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  17. Randy Webster Member

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    If that were true, then most public art would never see the light of day, as taxpayers would likely reject the “turd in the plaza” public monstrosities that have been inflicted upon them by their own dollars.

    Ah, but it’s not the taxpayers who get to determine where the dollars go. It’s bureaucrats in DC. Well, they are our betters.

    • #17
    • January 21, 2017, at 2:00 PM PST
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  18. Painter Jean Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    Ah, but it’s not the taxpayers who get to determine where the dollars go. It’s bureaucrats in DC. Well, they are our betters.

    That’s exactly what I meant. Taxpayers don’t typically have any say in how their dollars are being used in public art schemes. As Dave mentioned above, there are lots of zero-talent folks who swim in grant waters, and are thus well-positioned to be on the receiving end when the bureaucrats start tossing tax dollars about.

    • #18
    • January 21, 2017, at 2:17 PM PST
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  19. Housebroken Thatcher

    BrianVermont: I think the assumption now is that Congress will simply zero out the culture agencies.

    Only in my dreams.

    I have yet to be convinced that laissez-faire won’t work in arts and crafts. (Full disclosure: a good friend makes a fair second income with some great pottery, a cousin earns above an average income in the art field without Federal funding, and another does VERY well without creating anything mostly by virtue of your tax dollars.)

    • #19
    • January 21, 2017, at 2:59 PM PST
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  20. Housebroken Thatcher

    BrianVermont: I think the assumption now is that Congress will simply zero out the culture agencies.

    Only in my dreams.

    I have yet to be convinced that laissez-faire won’t work in arts and crafts.

    (Full disclosure: a good friend makes a fair second income with some great pottery, a cousin earns above an average income in the art field without Federal funding, and another does VERY well without creating anything mostly by virtue of your tax dollars.)

    • #20
    • January 21, 2017, at 3:01 PM PST
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  21. Vectorman Thatcher

    BrianVermont: 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.

    One can definitely argue that some government money should be spent on art infrastructure, as we do for roads and parks that make a community. I think it best that local (say ~75%) and state funds be used in this regard.

    BrianVermont: 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.

    I totally agree with this! Each community could get a simple grant based on population. Each community could also consolidate with other local communities to establish a regional art center.

    • #21
    • January 21, 2017, at 4:53 PM PST
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  22. Painter Jean Member

    Vectorman (View Comment):
    I totally agree with this! Each community could get a simple grant based on population.

    This presumes that artistic ability and interest is a measurable and predictable part of the population. It’s not. Artistic talent isn’t evenly distributed amongst the population — heck, it isn’t evenly distributed along periods of time. Some areas might have an interest in, say, the opera, and others might not. This approach, then, represents an untargeted waste of taxpayers’ money.

    • #22
    • January 21, 2017, at 9:39 PM PST
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  23. Vectorman Thatcher

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):
    I totally agree with this! Each community could get a simple grant based on population.

    This presumes that artistic ability and interest is a measurable and predictable part of the population. It’s not. Artistic talent isn’t evenly distributed amongst the population — heck, it isn’t evenly distributed along periods of time. Some areas might have an interest in, say, the opera, and others might not. This approach, then, represents an untargeted waste of taxpayers’ money.

    My original statement included “regional art centers.” I think each state has at least one art center – low population states like Wyoming probably have more than one. And it isn’t a “waste” of money if items not being used are “re-cycled.” I hate government waste too, but the amount spent on insurance, shipping and coordination of this art is much more valuable than another “piss-on-Christ.”

    • #23
    • January 22, 2017, at 5:25 AM PST
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  24. Painter Jean Member

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    I hate government waste too, but the amount spent on insurance, shipping and coordination of this art is much more valuable than another “piss-on-Christ.”

    Let private art supporters do this. Why do taxpayers need to be involved in any of this?? The OP seems to have disappeared, but I wish he would have answered my question: who does the judging of “quality” in a field which has rejected standards? Who are the bureaucrats who get to pick the winners?

    • #24
    • January 22, 2017, at 9:40 AM PST
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  25. Vectorman Thatcher

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    Let private art supporters do this. Why do taxpayers need to be involved in any of this?? The OP seems to have disappeared, but I wish he would have answered my question: who does the judging of “quality” in a field which has rejected standards? Who are the bureaucrats who get to pick the winners?

    I agree wholly with your statement that bureaucrats should not pick winners.

    What I still agree with from the OP:

    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.

    Changing the NEA to focus on bringing art to all Americans would de-emphasize the inevitable “all Trump wants to do is kill the Arts.” With Trump’s backbone, he could show the same expenditure of money and the increased effectiveness of the original NEA mission, while ridiculing the Democrats and their “Amen Chorus” media in the process. His administration gives something tangible to the Deplorables, while paying the big city art centers for their expenses. A win-win negotiation for all Americans.

    I really dislike sending money to DC to come back to us, but sometimes you have to play the game for the good of the entire country. Cost-effective government is a winner, as people (of all persuasions) like to live in clean, vibrant areas rather than (just) the lowest tax places.

    • #25
    • January 22, 2017, at 10:13 AM PST
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  26. Douglas Inactive

    BrianVermont: I want the culture agencies to thrive.

    I want them gone. The federal government has no more business with departments of culture than they do a department of education. Art existed and thrived long before these agencies were even an evil dream in the heads of their creators. They’ll continue long after those agencies are gone.

    • #26
    • January 22, 2017, at 1:27 PM PST
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  27. Cato Rand Coolidge

    I have no idea why art is any of the federal government’s business. There is no “art clause” among the limited and enumerated powers of the federal government in the Constitution. There is no “collective action problem” necessitating government involvement in the production of art. The federal government has no distinctive competences in identifying artistic merit. And government funding will inevitably and unavoidably lead to capture of the funding agencies by narrow interest groups. Only someone feeding at this particular trough would attempt to justify its existence.

    • #27
    • January 22, 2017, at 1:34 PM PST
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  28. Randy Webster Member

    I know this train has long ago left the station but

    “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” Madison.

    Substitute “the arts” for “objects of benevolence.”

    • #28
    • January 22, 2017, at 1:43 PM PST
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  29. Pony Convertible Member

    Sorry pal, no Federal money for the arts. None, not one nickle. That is not the reason for government.

    • #29
    • January 22, 2017, at 1:54 PM PST
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  30. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    In 1995 as the first Republican-led Congress began talking about budget cuts, PBS announced that The American Experience would launch a new series featuring American presidents and the inaugural program would be on… Ronald Reagan. (Narrated by David Ogden Stiers it was actually pretty even handed.)

    It was obviously a suck up attempt and it worked.

    But it’s all horticulture. You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think. Kingly patronage has no place in our Republic.

    • #30
    • January 22, 2017, at 1:57 PM PST
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