NEA – Quick Note

Jesus…it’s taken a bit of sleuthing, but I thought I’d let people know that the $50million in stimulus money set aside for the NEA by the House survived the House/Senate conference intact. It takes some looking, but you can see a summary of funding here.

So…it’s a miracle. Whew. Now just pass the fucker, let Obama sign it, and let’s get on with our lives already.


More Obama/Arts Tea Leaves

Here’s an intriguing idea on the arts, from an guest editorial in the New York Times. Arts Czar, anyone? (Maybe in some kind of pseudo-uniform like C. Everett Coop used to wear as Surgeon General…a splattered painter’s smock with epaulets, folk art yarn sash, Kaiser Wilhelm spiked helmet decorated in day-glo swirls and rhinestones with a silvery papier mache bird’s nest riding the spike. One hand thrusting a dripping paintbrush forward above Ralph Steadman spattered lettering of: I WANT YOU.)


Published: December 26, 2008
Chapel Hill, N.C.

IN 1935, as part of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Farm Security Administration, which reached out to rural families as they struggled during the Depression. Roy Stryker, who oversaw the agency’s photo documentary program, captured the strength of American culture in the depths of the country’s despair. The photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks showed us both the pain of America and the resilience of its people.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson drew on his Texas roots when he created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, organizations that share America’s arts and humanities with the American people.

Both Roosevelt and Johnson demonstrated their forceful commitment to the preservation and celebration of American culture — and they did so in challenging times.

So what will President-elect Barack Obama do? Well, here’s a suggestion.

Over the years, America has developed an impressive array of federal cultural programs — in addition to the endowments for the arts and the humanities. These include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, NPR, PBS and the Smithsonian Institution.

Each of these organizations has helped preserve our nation’s rich folklore — its music, stories and traditional arts — as a uniquely powerful voice for our culture.

But as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1997 to 2001, I learned firsthand that these institutions, though united by a shared goal, can sometimes run into conflict with one another. There were bureaucratic tangles, overlaps and missteps that, with foresight, could have been avoided.

Which is why I believe the president should create a cabinet-level position — a secretary of culture — to provide more cohesive leadership for these impressive programs and to assure that they receive the recognition and financing they deserve.

The president should initiate another change, too. The leaders of our cultural institutions should all have renewable 10-year appointments. (Some now serve only four-year terms.) Such a change would help to provide continuity and insulate the organizations from the tumult of political change. This move would allow each agency to develop long-term agendas in coordination with the secretary of culture in each administration.

Mr. Obama has an opportunity to revitalize our national spirit by strengthening our cultural programs at every level. It’s hard to imagine what could be a more important — and enduring — legacy.

William R. Ferris is the senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Reading the NEA Tea Leaves

Since Obama’s moving so fast in putting his team together that they’re down to announcing Michelle Obama’s press secretary, I’ve been searching a bit to try and find out who might end up at NEA (the chairmanship opens next month). Caroline Kennedy has been one name knocked about, but for the moment she’s out of the running since she’s expressed interest in Hillary Clinton’s senate seat. About the only other name I’ve run across is Michael Dorf, who used to work with the late Congressman Sidney Yates–a good sign–and who owns part interests in wineries–which, for some weird reason, seems like a good sign too. But who knows?

I’m kind of hoping that Obama will work something like FDR’s WPA for the arts into his economic recovery plan, but that might be the sort of thing some shithead like Sen. Tom Coburn might filibuster as the empire crashes and burns. (There goes my grant, eh?) Right now, paying for symphonies probably isn’t at the head of the list while the State of California is digging under the sofa cushions for pennies.

Other things I found whilst reading the tea leaves were a couple articles saying theatre is again dead. Or at least, the “straight play” (nonmusical) is. (Note to theatres: “Lost Wavelengths” has music in it and is a drama…I’m just sayin’.) This is apparently because blah blah blah subscriber base aging blah blah blah young people not coming blah blah blah small theatres popping up blah blah blah big theatres flailing blah blah blah….

If you been around awhile, you could probably write the rest of the article yourself. I’m going to go way out on a limb here and, drawing on my producing experience, offer a couple modest proposals:

1. Don’t do safe plays. If it doesn’t scare you, then what’s the fucking point, really?

2. Get your audience drunk. Or assume they’re drunk. Or high. Imagine seeing the play for the first time high. In brief: if it blows your mind, it’ll blow theirs…and they’ll come back or recommend it to others.

3. Keep your ticket prices reasonable or at least offer some deals. If you have to jack them up to cover the real estate, maybe you’re the wrong theatre for that real estate. (And I know this goes against everything right and true and American, but, you know: you don’t have to get bigger. Sometimes, small means freedom.)

4. If you’re a theatre that celebrates having an edge, please don’t do the same play everyone else is doing.

5. Do world premieres…you’re going to lose your shirt anyway, so have some fun.

[Note: upon reflection, I decided that the version of this I wrote earlier today was too harsh and judgmental, so I edited it a bit.]

What’s In It For Me Dept.

Amid the lightning and thunder of the Wall Street and Big Three bailouts, there hasn’t been much talk about Obama’s possible impact on the arts. I have heard Caroline Kennedy’s name bandied about as a possible NEA chairmain, but, by God, she’s getting some kind of job since just about everybody wants her for something.

Anyway, I ran across this bit on a piece about Obama’s economic sitmulus package that I thought was interesting:

Among the worst vestiges of the Clinton years was the linking of education spending to the nation’s technological advancement, downplaying the life-affirming, intrinsic value of culture. Since the Reagan Administration bulldozed federal arts and humanities funding, the nation’s entire cultural apparatus has become increasingly privatized.

Why shouldn’t the stimulus package fund arts groups and schools to hire at least 100,000 cultural workers? These workers can paint murals, teach art, dance, music, and theater, and provide the level of art support that existed in the United States from the New Deal through the Carter Administration.

The Obama transition team has already endorsed an ArtistCorp, though this appears separate from the stimulus package. But a Musicians National Service Initiative already exists, and could hire people with stimulus funds through its recently created MusicianCorp.

Hiring cultural workers would not only boost consumer purchasing power, but in doing so the Obama Administration would send a powerful message about the nation’s values. The United States should not be only about high-tech, infrastructure, and finance, and our cultural infrastructure deserves more than having its leaders honored annually at a Kennedy Center gala.