The last of the panel questions for Week 4 of the Barry’s Blog discussion of the future of the NEA are up, and Barry himself has added some final thoughts to wrap up the week. Check it all out here. To give you a taste and encourage you to visit, once again I’ve cross-posted my own answers below.
Q: There is a growing class of recently retired arts leaders (including some who aren’t yet finished with their careers, but who have moved over to the consultant side of the fence as it were). What role should the Endowment play in maintaining the sector’s institutional memory and somehow capture the lessons learned from this class of leaders for the benefit of the sector’s future leadership? How might it accomplish that?
A: I would never presume to assert that emerging leaders have all of the answers. I’m only 29, but even in the last few years as I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to understand just how much there is that I didn’t know at 26, and how much more I have left to learn. So I think our retired and semi-retired arts leaders have an important role to play in guiding the next generation forward and grounding our efforts in historical perspective. Every management team can benefit from having experienced voices as part of it, even if those voices are heard in an advisory rather than supervisory capacity.
What is the Endowment’s most appropriate role? I’m not sure it needs to get involved to too great a degree in this transition, but I think it can start by setting an example in its own hiring practices by putting people with the right combination of experience, skills, vision, creativity, and energy in leadership positions and ensuring that experience levels are appropriately distributed among the teams. The Endowment could also commission an oral history or other research project to record the rich historical perspectives of the retired and semi-retired arts leaders and preserve them for posterity. The next generation of leaders will also need the humility to seek out those perspectives and not get caught up too quickly in their own brilliance. But with that said, I suspect the perspective of elders is more likely to be valued properly when sought out voluntarily or incorporated into a common vision than when dictated from the top down.
Q: Do the programs and services the Endowment currently offers reflect the best use of its money? Do you think the NEA has (is) doing enough to promote and nurture smaller arts organizations and newer, more cutting edge art? What about its support for multicultural arts? What should the NEA do to ensure that it makes provision for these kinds of arts and arts organizations? Where should the proper balance lie between support for traditional Anglo America arts forms, arts expressions and legacies, and arts organizations, and both multicultural arts and newer, more avant garde artistic expressions of younger generations?
A: As I mentioned before, I think the Endowment could do a better job distributing its resources to organizations of all sizes. There is really no reason for the NEA to be giving $50,000 grants to organizations with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. It’s just another check off the list for those development departments. On the other hand, even a $5,000 grant could have a transformative impact on an organization with a smaller budget, and the vast majority of arts organizations fall into that category. Furthermore, I’m not convinced that the current discipline-specific structure really makes the most sense for the field, particularly as more multidisciplinary work and organizations appear and as genre boundaries between what has historically been considered “art” and multicultural, commercial, and vernacular forms of creativity become ever more blurred. I keep coming back to this point, but as the national funder for the arts in America, I really think the Endowment should focus most of all on maintaining and building the infrastructure that makes cultural production and consumption possible, leaving the specifics of what art gets produced when by whom to others who are in a better position to judge. The decentralized support to state and regional arts agencies is a good example of this infrastructure-oriented funding in practice. Specific programs to subsidize presenters of various sizes, competitions, record labels, distribution networks, community cultural planning efforts, research, and service organizations would help as well. But the Endowment should be vigilant in ensuring that an appropriate portion of these funds ends up ultimately helping artists, rather than arts administrators and for-profit consulting firms. Even though I am generally in support of unrestricted funding, then, there may be instances in which the NEA’s project-based support is more appropriate; and I would also advocate for the establishment of a robust evaluation department to assess program effectiveness using tools from the NEA’s 21st-century peers in the philanthropy community.
Meanwhile, my answer to Barry’s question about arts education from earlier in the week, in which I raised the issue of what happens to newly converted arts fans once they grow up and want to continue their activity in the field of their choice, has generated some interesting responses around the web. Two of the more in-depth commentaries come from Guy Yedwab at CultureFuture, who’s more optimistic than me that an increase in arts patrons resulting from better access to arts education would bring enough new money into the sector to accommodate more aspiring professional artists; and from Joe Patti at Butts in Seats, who points out that it’s actually in an industry’s interests to exaggerate the availability of professional opportunities so that employers can keep labor costs down (though he doesn’t go so far as to suggest that this kind of intentional scheming is happening in the arts).