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David A. Smith: NEA's priority, artists or taxpayers?

By David A. Smith
May 18, 2009

President Barack Obama’s recent choice to lead the National Endowment for the Arts is Rocco Landesman, a successful Broadway producer whose credits include the current revival of Hair, along with The Producers, Angels in America and Big River. This effective, energetic businessman is also president of a company that owns five important New York theaters.

The choice is stirring excitement and hope - less because of Landesman himself and more because it is Obama who picked him. The arts world is one of the president’s most passionate constituencies and anticipates that he will make the arts a top priority.

The New York Times anticipates that Landesman will “undoubtedly provide a bolder vision for the Endowment and national arts funding.” Bolder, we’re left to venture, than his predecessor, Dana Gioia.

Many artists and their supporters voice mixed feelings on what Gioia accomplished in his years at the helm. As far as congressional support goes, Gioia left the NEA in better shape than it had ever been, but artists find its current agenda lacking. The key point of contention is that the operation no longer makes grants to individual artists, and most of its money is directed at organizations and institutions largely engaged in outreach and arts education.

The successful “Shakespeare in American Communities,” which funds dozens of touring theater groups, is a perfect example. The endowment has undertaken evangelism for the arts in a big way but has shied away from sponsoring the creation of new art.

When artists speak of getting the agency moving again, what many of them mean is that the endowment should resume giving individual grants, a practice discontinued by congressional order in the mid-1990s after infamous “culture war” scandals nearly wrecked the endowment.

A central question since the endowment’s 1965 formation has been whether American artists or the American people as a whole are its main beneficiary. Should it help artists create new art - to take risks they might not otherwise take and push the boundaries of art - or should it work to introduce art to more people and seek to make it more prominent in the lives of those who have less access to it?

With a limited budget, it’s hard to do both effectively. Not to mention that the tastes of individual artists - and, more important, the assumption of what contemporary art is supposed to do - is sometimes at odds with the rest of the community in which art exists.

The difficulty also comes from the fact that there’s not an unequivocally wrong answer. Both factions can make a sound claim to legitimacy. The old trouble for the endowment was that it rarely recognized that the public interest could be just as important as what the artists wanted. Yet believing the endowment should use its money to spread access to the arts is not the same thing as expressing disapproval of cutting-edge art. It’s simply to acknowledge that there is a difference between art that is paid for with taxpayer dollars and art that is privately funded. Most of all, it is a difference of purpose.

As chairman, Landesman will be free to answer this question. He and Obama may decide to lobby Congress to restore the endowment’s authority to make individual grants. But if works produced by those grants cause public consternation, Congress should expect to hear about it. If Landesman - or anyone - thinks that artists are the endowment’s only constituency, there’s liable to be controversy somewhere down the road.

David A. Smith is a senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University and author of “Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy” (Ivan R. Dee, 2008). His e-mail address is .

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