I’m participating in this week’s portion of Barry Hessenius’s and Anthony Radich’s six-week online discussion about the future of the NEA, hosted at the Western States Arts Federation website. Barry has the panel’s answers to the first two questions already up. You can check them out here, or if you’re pressed for time, I’ve reposted my own contributions below. I highly encourage you to check out the entire panel when you have a chance, however.
Q: What will it take for the arts to finally move arts education to an equal level of support and respect with math and science – in the minds of educators, politicians, business & industry, parents, the media and / or the general public and what specifically do you think the NEA can do to help us reach the goal of K-12, sequential, curriculum based, arts education for all students?
A: This is surely not going to make me the most popular guy in the room, but I think that it’s really, really important that we have an industry-wide conversation about the long-term implications of increased arts education before we just assume that more arts education is a good thing. Before you call me out as the Grinch who stole music classes, let me explain. I think that the conversation about arts education is inseparable from the conversation about the professional arts infrastructure in America. The reason is simple: the kids who fall in love with learning to play the tuba or do a pirouette today are the adults who are going to be competing with each other for gigs and grant money tomorrow. If we are successful in our efforts and ensure that every child has the opportunity to experience all the arts they want to during their formative years, what happens to them once they get to college? The arts are a powerful drug, as addictive as nicotine for some. The arts encourage people to dream big, and we’ve developed a post-Baby Boomer culture in America that tells children to follow their dreams no matter what obstacles they encounter. That’s fine so far as it goes, but there needs to be a pot of gold on the other side of that rainbow. When music conservatories, playwriting programs, schools of art—institutions whose ranks and capital budgets have been swelling apace in recent years—blithely charge marginal students tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and fail to offer them even the pretense of “real life” entrepreneurship skills, that’s as close to third-sector malpractice as it gets in my opinion. A recent poll of Harvard graduates from the class of 2009 revealed that 16%—more than any other industry—considered the arts their “dream field” that they would pursue absent other considerations (6% actually are pursuing careers in the arts). If we’re trying to hook 55 million children on the arts in a system that pours 3.2 million new high school graduates into the market every year, even if only 10% of them decide to pursue professional careers, what happens to them when, by the NEA’s own figures, only 2 million artists can coexist in that market at any given time?
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have arts education or that students across the socioeconomic spectrum don’t deserve access to it. But I do worry that focusing our efforts on arts education is an example of putting the cart before the horse. Much of the literature that advocates arts education as a strategy for cultivating demand for the arts assumes that students who have invested thousands of hours of their lives in perfecting a craft during their formative years will happily set all of that aside as soon as they turn 18 or 21, become productive members of society with skills that they somehow picked up while practicing piano for four hours a day, and donate all of their expendable income to their local arts organizations. Really? Don’t you think that some of them might be a little bitter about having to leave their dream behind? Don’t you think some of them might continue on and spend their parents’ life savings on three graduate degrees in a quixotic quest for fame and glory that never materializes? Is this the best use of our collective human capital? Before we lean too hard on a strategy that, if successful, is virtually guaranteed to pour legions of new aspiring professional artists into the system, we need first to resolve the chronic undercapacity issues that plague that system, starting with significantly increasing the supply of philanthropic capital (whether government or private) available to the arts field.
Q: Several previous panelists have expressed caution about the Endowment trying to re-establish direct funding of individual artists because of the possibility of political attacks putting the agency once again in a vulnerable position. We’ve already seen signs of that. Do you think the Endowment should consider funding to artists once again? How might the Endowment help to create more intersections between independent working artists and nonprofit arts administrators?
A: Again, my position is rather iconoclastic on this one. I don’t think that direct funding of individual artists is a particularly good use of the Endowment’s resources. My objection is less political than operational. Let’s say the NEA is right that there are two million artists in the United States. No agency is equipped to properly evaluate the talents of two million artists—or even a tenth of that number. Hell, top colleges only receive twenty to thirty thousand applications a year. Individual artist fellowships might have made sense back when the NEA was first formed and the arts infrastructure was significantly underdeveloped compared to now. In 2009, though, it’s a horribly inefficient way of distributing money, unless artistic merit (quite a subjective bugaboo to begin with) is just thrown out the window and anyone who claims to be an artist can apply for an automatic $20 grant. But somehow, I don’t think that’s what the individual artist fellowship advocates have in mind.
Far better, in my opinion, for the NEA to support the infrastructure that makes funding for artists possible. There are established procedures in place to pay most individual artists for the activity that they generate. Composers can be commissioned by the ensembles they write for. Dancers can be paid by the companies they dance for. Playwrights can get royalties from the plays they write. The problem is not that artists can’t get money for their work, it’s that too many artists can’t get enough money from their work to make a living. Rather than circumvent the curatorial system that already exists and add another, very expensive layer on top, the NEA should work to subsidize the payments that are already made through the system—especially at the smaller organization level—and thereby support the curatorial activity that already takes place. There is one thing on which the individual fellowship advocates and I will agree: artists don’t receive nearly enough of the funding that goes to support the arts. According to Americans for the Arts’s research study Arts & Economic Prosperity III, artists themselves receive only 11% of total arts organizational expenditures—a figure far too low.