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The NEA at the Tipping Point

After a decade that saw the endowment successfully expanding Americans' access to art, a new chairman has other priorities.
by David A. Smith
11/13/2009, Volume 015, Issue 10

Is there another crucifix in urine lurking just around the corner? Something even worse? The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is at a tipping point, one that has arrived far earlier in the Obama administration than even close observers of the NEA's fortunes might have suspected. And because of things that are going on right now, a success story in a town with precious few of them--and one that, contrary to public perception, conservatives can and do support--stands at risk of being discredited and damaged.

Over the summer, it was reported that federal funds earmarked for the NEA in the $787 billion economic stimulus package supported the screening of a movie described as "the world's only underground kinky art porno horror film, complete with four men, three women and a gorilla," and a stage production of something called Perverts Put Out. Those with long memories might have found themselves thinking, "Here we go again .  .  ."

These grants, however, rather than directly supporting the questionable individual works, were of the keep-the-lights-on variety, given largely without regard to what sorts of things might be staged when those lights were on. Their purpose, like that of the entire stimulus package, was to address the severe economic trouble besetting the country. The nation's arts organizations were among the countless businesses being threatened; many faced critical financial strains due in large part to a sudden plunge in private donations that followed the Wall Street crash. Salary support was one of the specific projects identified in the NEA's emergency grant guidelines. Symphonies and theater groups have employees who depend on paychecks just as much as auto companies and financial institutions.

Such controversies, however, are a reminder that the National Endowment for the Arts continually faces fundamental choices about how best to preserve the quality and seriousness of the arts and make people aware of their importance. There are today developments more worrisome and threatening to the agency's well being than any headline-grabbing "underground kinky art porno horror film." The time is rapidly approaching in which the NEA must once again consider whom it is intended to serve: the American artist or the American public. This is a central question with which it has wrestled over the entire course of its 44-year existence, and the way it responds now will determine whether it will continue to enjoy its current support in Congress and, indeed, whether it deserves that support at all.

The NEA has a new chairman, Rocco Landesman, appointed in May by the new president. Given the level of support from the arts community for Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign, it was expected that his choice to head the endowment would reflect the interests of artists more than the interests of the public at large. That in and of itself did not necessarily portend trouble. Landesman, like the NEA's first chairman, Roger Stevens, is a successful Broadway producer and a man with proven business sense. This should serve him well when he goes before Congress to defend the NEA's budget and in steering it clear of public controversies. But it's also tiresomely pointed out that Landesman is a man who prides himself on pulling no punches, and his supporters are looking for him and his "sharp elbows" and "my way or the highway" attitude to shake things up at the NEA, as though stirring the pot were always a productive thing to be doing.

Within hours of being confirmed, Landesman displayed the latter trait, making disparaging comments in an interview with the New York Times about small-town -theater (in particular, that of Peoria, Illinois) and saying that quality art exists primarily in America's cities. While this may well be true by many measures, it does not necessarily follow that the NEA should be directing its resources primarily to cities (and to the artists who live in them). Landesman further said that creating a program to secure affordable housing for artists--an obviously large city-focused project--should be one of the NEA's priorities. This notion was discussed and largely dismissed back in the mid-1960s at the very first meeting of the National Council on the Arts--the board that advises the endowment's chairman and reviews the grants and initiatives. But now Landesman wants to bring it back. It is further indication that he conceives of the endowment primarily as a way to steer government money to artists rather than a way in which government money can bring more art to the public at large. That the NEA is there, in other words, for the benefit of artists.

Landesman went on to say that geographic distribution of the NEA's money isn't as important as quality. Again, on the surface a hard point with which to quibble. "There is going to be some pushback from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit." He intended this remark to draw a stark distinction between himself and his immediate predecessors--Dana Gioia and Bill Ivey--but it shows he's completely missing what the NEA has really been up to the past 10 years. It hasn't been funding a democratization of artistic creation: It's been funding a democratization of art access--two completely different enterprises.

Take, for example, one of the most successful programs in the NEA's history: "Shakespeare in American Communities." With it, the NEA has been funding professional Shakespeare troupes, not earnest amateurs, to hit the road aiming to play for people who've never been able to see a live Shakespearean performance before. Since its beginning in 2003, the program has employed scores of professional companies that have given more than 5,400 performances, including 3,600 at American schools. NEA funding makes available multimedia "teaching kits" designed to broaden and enrich students' understanding of Shakespeare. Upwards of 1.5 million people, in all 50 states, have been the beneficiaries of this program.

This is an expensive undertaking, to say the least, just as it is for an orchestra to go out and give similar concerts. Few individual institutions can fund such energetic outreach programs (even regionally, let alone nationally) from their day-to-day budgets. Funding and encouraging such activity is the National Endowment for the Arts at its best, and the impetus behind such programs is a clear understanding that the NEA's constituency is the American public.

Later in that same New York Times interview, Landesman insinuated that those who oppose the NEA's projects and who are skeptical of contemporary art in general may be secretly motivated by a dislike of homosexuals. This absurd argument had its first life during the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy of the late 1980s and does absolutely nothing to resolve the question about the proper spending of federal funds. It's nothing more than an attempt to restart the culture wars that paralyzed the NEA and took Ivey and Gioia a decade to quell.

Nor have Landesman's remarks been the only source of recent controversy. During an August 10 conference call with a large group of artists, the NEA's then-new communications director, Yosi Sergant, encouraged them to use their talents to draw attention to the administration's political agenda: health care, the environment, and education. The nation's artists are "a community that knows how to make a stink," he reportedly said. "Do it." (Whether directly a result of this or not, just a few days after the call, Americans for the Arts, the nation's largest arts advocacy group, along with several other arts organizations, issued a call for Congress to pass health care reform in full, including the controversial public option.)

Also on the call was Buffy Wicks, the deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. A former campaign worker for Obama, she effusively thanked the artists for all their hard work during the presidential campaign and said that much more was about to be expected of them. Never in the history of the NEA has an administration sought to use it for its own political purposes. Whether artists and administrators understand it or not, using the endowment as a propaganda tool will discredit it faster than funding every form of blasphemy and pornography imaginable--not to mention being a clear violation of the 1939 Hatch Act, which prohibits political activities by federal employees.

Upon being challenged about this call, Sergant denied that he was involved and then said that the invitation to the conference call must have come from outside the NEA. That course quickly became untenable when invitees pulled out their invitations. Sergant was reassigned within the NEA and eventually, more than a month after the conference call, let go. Landesman then issued a statement trying to defuse the mounting criticism. "This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda," he vowed and bluntly said that any suggestions to that effect "are simply false." Instead, he described it as nothing more than a way to "inform members of the arts community of an opportunity to become involved in volunteerism," though he was willing to admit that some of the language used was "not appropriate." While the call took place the day before Landesman was actually sworn in (a fact he pointed out in his statement), the episode illustrates the way that serious problems arise for the NEA when it does not maintain its distance from a sitting administration.

It's no exaggeration to say that the NEA may be on the verge of suddenly demolishing nearly a decade of work that restored an embattled agency to the good graces of Congress and the public. The NEA changed course in the wake of the scandals of the early- and mid-1990s, and the story of how it recovered from its troubles, avoided controversy, and became a productive civic good is too little known.

When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, there was anticipation in many quarters that the NEA would be brought to an end once and for all. It had been battered by years of scandal--most notoriously those involving a small number of controversial works by Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and a handful of performance artists that taken together seemed to point to an agency whose idea of what constituted the best in the arts (and, moreover, the best use of tax dollars) was at odds with that of a majority of Americans. Yet the NEA soldiered on and found congressional allies, including many Republicans.

In a dramatic moment in January 1995, Charlton Heston (who had served on the National Council for the Arts in its earliest years) teamed up with Ronald Reagan's NEA head, Frank Hodsoll, to convince Congress that the endowment did other things beside cultivate art that stumbled over the line into pornography and blasphemy. Heston cited the work being done by "little theaters, little orchestras, little museums" in places away from the big cities, organizations that simply wouldn't exist without the NEA's help. He noted that, at its best, the NEA had the potential to preserve and showcase America's (and the West's) artistic and cultural heritage. "I think conservatives generally agree that such a result is a public good," Heston said. "Certainly this one does." Heston was pointing the way forward for the embattled agency, one that would be seized on by two of its chairmen: Bill Ivey (1998-2001) and Dana Gioia (2003-09). It was a matter of necessity.

While the NEA survived, its funding was slashed. From a high in 1992 of just under $176 million its budget bottomed out in 2000 at $97.6 million. More important, Congress mandated a series of reforms, and these proved vital in shaping a clear sense of mission for the NEA. First of all, Congress took away the endowment's ability to make grants to individual artists, leaving only a handful of exceptions. It also largely ended the practice of "sub-granting," in which the endowment provided money to organizations that in turn made direct grants to artists with no NEA oversight. The endowment could also no longer award general operating grants. All grants had to be program grants, with the project clearly spelled out in the initial application--the only exceptions being the recent grants made under the terms of the emergency stimulus package. Congress was also adamant that the NEA be of service to what it referred to as the "underserved" areas of the country--places away from traditional centers of art and culture.

The reforms bore substantial fruit through a lengthy roster of new and successful programs. Bill Ivey, who came to the endowment after stints as director of the Country Music Foundation in Nashville and president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, was the first chairman to lay out a new program in line with the congressional mandates. Through an initiative called "Challenge America," he started to allocate millions of dollars in annual grants for arts education and access in those "underserved" areas. Then, beginning in 2003 under the leadership of Dana Gioia (a well-known poet and critic who had also served as vice-president of marketing at the General Foods corporation), the NEA created a slate of "National Initiatives" with the goal of bringing professional-quality artistic exhibits and performances to communities that did not regularly have access to them. "Shakespeare in American Communities" was the first, and it was followed by ambitious undertakings like "NEA Jazz Masters on Tour," "Great American Voices" (in which touring opera companies perform classic works at military bases), and "American Masterpieces" (a program that funds touring exhibits and performing arts companies).

Largely because Congress and the Bush administration were pleased to endorse programs of this nature, by 2005 the NEA's budget was back up over $120 million. That year came "The Big Read," a popular program in which the NEA sponsors a local community group--such as a library or museum, sometimes even a whole town--in reading a classic of literature in an effort "to restore reading to the center of American culture." Other public literature initiatives include "Operation Homecoming," in which the NEA funds writing workshops in VA hospitals for returning veterans, and "Poetry Out Loud," which has so far seen a quarter-of-a-million students take part in a classic poetry recitation program. Over the last decade the NEA has made the breadth of its reach as much a hallmark of its efforts as artistic merit.

While the periodic flare-ups about scandalous art, heated as they were, garnered the major publicity in the 1990s and were the trigger of the congressional reforms, they were never the real problem at the NEA. They were only a symptom. The real problem was the National Endowment for the Arts viewing itself first and foremost as a means of channeling government support to artistic innovation and operating as if it were to artists themselves that it was ultimately accountable.

The congressional reforms encouraged the NEA to shift its focus away from artists to the public in general. This was the essential step in transforming its political fortunes. Yet Rocco Landesman has said that if it were up to him, he'd rescind the prohibition on grants to individual artists today. In his eyes, the programs of Ivey and Gioia, rather than representing substantive change, served mainly to reconstruct the endowment's image. The time has now come "to move the ball down the field," he said in late October. "The days of a defensive NEA are over." Should his attitude result in these congressional reforms falling by the wayside, one by one or all at once, the NEA could be on the road to a repeat of its earlier scandals. More seriously, its ability to touch the lives of people other than just artists could be gradually eroded. It could grow less responsive to the civic aspect of the arts, less concerned about how the public at large interacts with the arts. If that comes to be the case, we will all be the losers. When the NEA falls into controversy, the real casualty is the very idea that the arts are truly important in civic life and that the government has a valid interest in supporting them.

Yet there is more than a glimmer of hope. At the end of October, the congressional committee working out the endowment's budget for the coming year specifically praised the effectiveness of "The Big Read" and instructed the NEA to provide a "detailed funding plan for the continuation of this popular and successful program" within 60 days. The committee's report indicated that it was well aware of the recent controversy regarding the potential political use of the endowment and knew, moreover, that "The Big Read" was in Landesman's crosshairs. The report also reiterated the importance of the congressional reforms about making and distributing grants. While some may see this as Congress trying to micromanage the endowment, the committee saw it as necessary "in order to restate for the Endowment and the general public the guidelines within which the agency is expected to conduct its work and distribute taxpayer dollars in support of the arts." It's a clear message to the endowment's new leadership. Sad perhaps to say, but such close attentiveness on the part of Congress must be kept up going forward.

G.K. Chesterton wrote, "How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it." Thus is the work of great art: It draws us outside of ourselves. It makes us less self-centered. What a nice thing this is for a democracy, and how contrary it is to contemporary popular culture, which relentlessly insists that the individual is the center of all things. The greatest potential of the National Endowment for the Arts is that it can testify to the communal power of great art and help people who want to have it as a central element in their lives. But paradoxically the endowment also has the power to make the public doubt whether the arts are of real interest to the government at all. Congress will have a large say in the way this power is used.

David A. Smith, a senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University, is the author of Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy (Ivan R. Dee). He can be reached at

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