OK, so I know I’m a little late to the party with the year/decade-in-review lists, but since no one other than me apparently cares enough about arts policy to make a top 10 list about it, I’m happy to be the doofus who takes the plunge. 2009 featured no shortage of tumultuous and game-changing events in arts policy, and it was a pleasure (though sometimes an exhausting one) to cover them here on the blog. Here are my picks for the year’s top ten:

10. The L3C Gains, Loses Momentum

Last year, many in the arts who found themselves frustrated with the limitations of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit business model looked to the Low-Profit Limited Liability Company, or L3C, for an answer. An L3C is basically an LLC that has pledged to pursue a social mission as its first priority, even though it still intends to make a profit. The new legal form has been hailed as a potential panacea for businesses that serve an important social function but have trouble attracting capital because they can’t generate profits at market rates, such as newspapers, small biotech firms, and even North Carolina’s furniture manufacturing industry. Spearheaded by a foundation president, Mary Elizabeth and Gordon B. Mannweiler Foundation head Robert M. Lang, the L3C scored some early victories this year as Michigan, Utah, Wyoming and the Crow Indian Nation all passed it into law within a span of two months. However, things hit a snag in August when a technocrat from the IRS told everyone to hold their horses at an accounting conference (aside: I know I shouldn’t make fun, but an accounting conference? seriously?), claiming that “no one has really signed off” on the legal form at the federal level, which sparked an angry exchange between L3C Advisors and the agency. Since then, Illinois has been added to the list of states in which L3C formation is possible (Vermont was already there in 2008), but absent a federal mandate it’s unclear how far the movement will go.

9. NEA Webcasts Cultural Workforce Forum

The National Endowment for the Arts has had a research unit for a number of years. It’s published a number of important contributions to the literature in that time, most notably its recurring series on public participation in the arts and on artists in the workforce. This year, however, instead of simply releasing its studies in print and online, the NEA went one step further: it gathered an impressive coterie of researchers and arts organization representatives to react to the study and share perspectives from similar studies with which they had involvement. The real game-changer, though, was the agency’s decision to broadcast this forum to the public via the web so that anyone could follow along and participate. (A second forum focusing on the most recent Survey of Public Participation in the Arts took place in December.) This is what field-building looks like: bringing a mishmash of parties together around a nexus of common interest so as to move forward together. Research is at its best when it’s a team sport, and I am extremely heartened to see that our Endowment understands that as well as it does.

8. Changing of the Guard at Hewlett, Irvine

The West Coast arts funding landscape changed dramatically in 2009, as California’s two largest grantmakers in the arts found themselves in the midst of leadership transitions at a time of drastic transition in the field as a whole. Things kicked off with the impending departure of the Hewlett Foundation’s Moy Eng, who came to the end of her eight-year term as Director of Hewlett’s Performing Arts Program in November. As the search for her replacement drew to a close, her successor was identified as none other than Irvine Foundation arts program director John McGuirk, who had previously worked under Moy at Hewlett earlier in the decade. This, of course, opened up a new vacancy at Irvine, which has yet to be filled to date.

7. GIA Opens the Gates

I hope you’ll forgive me for including something in which I directly participated, but I really do feel it’s important (and the fact that I was the one participating is not what made it important). The annual Grantmakers in the Arts Conference, the only national convening of the folks who collectively have more influence over the future of the arts in America than just about anyone else, has traditionally been a closed-door affair. While you don’t have to be a member to attend, you do have to be staff at an arts grantmaking institution unless you’ve been offered a specific invitation to speak or perform. With one exception, the conference had never had press at any of its events and even then, they only covered the full plenary sessions, not any of the individual panels. In other words, if you weren’t there, you didn’t know what was happening, and you couldn’t participate in any way. This year, under the new leadership of Janet Brown, GIA has taken steps to open things up. In addition to inviting a blogger (me) to cover the conference, including workshops and breakout sessions, for the public, the organization has started two blogs of its own (authored by Brown and deputy director Tommer Peterson) and just unveiled a new website with an eye towards dramatically increasing the possibilities for substantive interaction online. Given the oft-heard criticism of funders as being too isolated and risk-averse, I can only say that this represents a giant step in the right direction.

6. The NEA Gets Stimulated

This was a big year for the NEA, as evidenced by its inclusion on this list four times. The first big story of the year involving the Endowment was the fight to include money for it in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as President Obama’s economic stimulus package. It was initially expected that the biggest fight over the NEA would be among Democrats, as Americans for the Arts and other advocates urged the administration and Congress to include as much as $1 billion for the agency in the bill. But it wasn’t until after the stimulus package passed the House with what at the time seemed like a disappointing $50 million for the NEA that the real fireworks started. Republicans, who had voted as a unanimous bloc against the legislation despite numerous compromises on the part of Democrats in the name of bipartisanship, began decrying “waste” in the bill and using the arts to draw media attention to their cause. Senator Tom Coburn, whose daughter is an opera singer, actually succeeded in passing an amendment that would have barred any of the stimulus money from going to museums, theaters, and arts centers. Fortunately, the $50 million was restored in conference committee, and the NEA had a small but real pot of money to help the arts community weather the storm. If only that had been the end of it…

5. Grand Dreams for Federal Arts Policy Fail to Materialize

It may be unfair to give the Obama administration anything other than an “Incomplete” on this one. Nevertheless, it does seem clear that artists’ hopes for a dramatic reorganization and integration of cultural policy at the federal level, manifested most obviously in the hugely popular Quincy Jones-inspired petition to create a Cabinet-level Secretary of the Arts, are not going to be realized anytime soon. Despite running the first Presidential campaign in memory to pull together a committee to advise on arts policy, since taking office Obama has mostly kept the arts at arm’s length as he (understandably, for now) focuses on frying bigger fish. Rather than the Arts Czar many were hoping for (and some were dreading), the only real effort to reform the system to date has been the appointment of two officials in the Office of Public Engagement with seemingly limited, ill-defined roles, both of whom have been virtually invisible since the summer.

4. The Conference Call Heard ‘Round the World

It all seemed so innocent at the time. Yosi Sergant, newly installed as the head of communications for the National Endowment for the Arts after a successful stint mobilizing artists, designers and other creative types for the Obama campaign, had an idea. He wanted to build a bridge between the NEA and the President’s United We Serve initiative, involving artists across the country in local community service projects — thus increasing the profile both of service and of the arts. His hope, as he explained it to me one warm June night in Seattle, was to make the NEA look good through this association, to be able to say to Congress, “look what we can accomplish just on a volunteer basis; now see what we can do if you actually give us some money!” So he organized a conference call with some of his old friends from the campaign, with the help of colleagues from the Office of Public Engagement and the Corporation for National and Community Service, which ran the United We Serve program, to try to get the word out about his idea. And being that the call largely featured old friends, and that he’s a blustery person in general, he indulged himself in some blustery praise for the President which sounded, well, a little over the top if you didn’t share his political views. Just one problem: one of the people he’d invited was Patrick Courrielche, a marketing professional who most definitely did not share his political views…and wouldn’t you know it, the two of them also used to work together. Courrielche took it upon himself to secretly record the entire exchange and bring it to Andrew Breitbart’s ultra-conservative Big Hollywood blog. Courielche’s widely-circulated piece cleverly presented actual information only in bits and pieces, woven together throughout with a paranoid vision of how the call might, just might, have really been an attempt to coerce artists into becoming ideological slaves for the government. Though the original essay retained some degree of humanity and had the decency to frame the title with a question mark at the end, the conspiratorial frenzy of the Big Hollywood/Big Government community soon had Courrielche playing investigative reporter, “discovering”  more and more pieces of a puzzle that ultimately fit together into something not at all like what he was describing. The damage was done, however; under intense pressure from conservative media outlets, Yosi Sergant was first reassigned from his post, then resigned from government altogether. After nine months of trying, the NEA bashers on the right wing had finally drawn blood.

3. State Arts Agencies Decimated

The numbers say it all: New Hampshire, down 32%. Ohio, down 47%. Illinois, down 51%. Arizona, down 54%. Florida, down 94% in three years. It was a terrible year for state arts agencies as the sluggish economy opened up yawning holes in many states’ financial registers. South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Michigan all faced the serious prospect of closure of their state agencies and in some cases the loss of all state funds for the arts. (With the exception of Michigan, the former prospect was averted.) Hawaii’s briefly lost its executive director position; New Jersey’s governor actually ignored a law in order to cut his agency’s budget to the bone. The lone bright spot was Minnesota, where a new Constitutional amendment is expected to triple the total available for the arts in that state. Many state arts agencies had just recently returned to funding levels, in non-inflation-adjusted terms, seen prior to the last recession; it will take them a long, long time to recover from this one.

2. Rocco

For most of the first half of the year, the hottest arts policy question on everyone’s minds was the identity of the next Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The LA Times ran a memorable feature in which thirty artists and celebrities were asked what they would do if they found themselves in the position. Many names were thrown around, including those of Michael Dorf, Claudine Brown, Caroline Kennedy, and Bob Lynch. Even so, Rocco Landesman’s nomination seemed to take everyone by surprise. The brash director of Jujamcyn Theaters was known for running his mouth, and sure enough he got himself into trouble almost from the moment he entered the spotlight by insulting Peoria’s theatrical community in an interview with the New York Times. (Rocco and Peoria have since become “best friends” after he kicked off his Art Works tour in that city.) Loose lips aside, though, many in the field are eager to see what comes of the Landesman chairmanship; he’s signaled an admirable understanding of and enthusiasm for the economic dimension of what the arts do, and the efforts to open up the NEA’s research to public comment have his stamp all over it. The NEA even has a new blog, Art Works, which opened with two posts from the Chairman himself. If nothing else, Landesman will keep things interesting over the next three years, and early signs suggest that his leadership may well take the agency in promising new directions.

1. The Great Recession

Rarely has a single event had so dominating an effect on the arts community as the stock market crash of September-October 2008 has had on the field this year. The Great Recession thoroughly reshaped the landscape in 2009 and served as the lens through which every decision was made and every strategy was considered. In addition to its impact on state arts agencies mentioned above, its influence was felt among the ranks of private foundations, where the Hewlett Foundation cut grantmaking by 40%, the Ford and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations offered buyouts to huge proportions of their staffs, and the Wallace Foundation let go of longtime program officers; among cultural institutions, a number of which (such as the Baltimore Opera and Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art) either closed for good or required extraordinary rescue; and among artists themselves, who despite occasionally finding creative inspiration in poverty nevertheless suffered through fewer work opportunities. Unfortunately, there isn’t much talk anymore of a swift recovery; indeed, some observers actually think 2010 will be even worse. That doesn’t mean we’re powerless, though: there are things we can all do to beat this recession together.

Honorable mention:

  • White House Social Innovation Fund
  • Michael Kaiser’s Arts in Crisis program
  • The Rise of the Twitterverse

And as a bonus, here are my picks for the top five new (in 2009) arts blogs:

5. <100K Project (Scott Walters)
4. Better Together (Janet Brown)
3. Unquiet Thoughts (Alex Ross)
2. Real Clear Arts (Judith H. Dobrzynski)
1. Arts, Culture and Creative Economy (Gary Steuer)