The Top 10 Arts Policy Stories of 2010

Painting the Street in Cincinnati

"Paint the Street" event hosted by ArtsWave, image by Rrrrred

Everybody likes a Top 10 list, right? Especially the nerdy ones! So here’s my contribution: the second annual list of the top ten arts policy stories from the past year. You can check out the 2009 edition here.

10. Intrinsic Impact Research Marches On

WolfBrown’s groundbreaking work on measuring “intrinsic impact” (the intangible, hard-to-define effects that arts experiences have on patrons) got a major boost in 2010, with a large project to bring the research to 15 theater companies in five cities around the country. Led by Theatre Bay Area, the endgame of this project involves a web-based toolkit that will allow rank and file arts organizations to adopt some of these methods themselves, without having to pay WolfBrown a pretty penny first. Audience surveys are already underway, and the final report and toolkit will be up and running by the end of next year.

9. Fine Arts Fund Reinvents Itself

In January 2010, a longstanding Cincinnati-based fundraising and grantmaking organization known as the Fine Arts Fund announced the results of a very interesting research study examining the attitudes of members of the public toward shared responsibility for (and benefit from) the arts. The political science perspective used in the study may have been a first for the field of arts research, and the results suggested that the field would be better off if the economic-impact- and arts-education-focused arguments that have characterized arts advocacy efforts over the past couple of decades were discarded in favor of a focus on vibrant neighborhoods and connected, engaged communities instead. Not satisfied with simply releasing a study and going about its business as usual, Fine Arts Fund took the additional, and frankly astonishing, step of wholly transforming its name (to ArtsWave), branding identity, and grantmaking priorities to bring them in line with these findings. (Disclosure: Fractured Atlas will be working with ArtsWave in early 2011 as part of this last initiative, though it had no role in the research or the strategic planning process that led up to this point.) ArtsWave’s very public metamorphosis shows that even an 83-year-old institution can still be on the leading edge.

8. Dance Theatre Workshop and Bill T. Jones Merge (And They’re Pretty Much the Only Ones)

Two years after the stock market crash of 2008 led numerous observers to predict a rash of mergers and closures in the nonprofit sector, the greatest carnage in the ranks of arts organizations has come not from the market but from the IRS (see item #7). While virtually every arts nonprofit has suffered stress in the wake of the economic recession, most have survived intact, with only a few exceptions such as the Honolulu Symphony, NYS Arts, and the Baltimore Opera — and that last one might even have been a good thing. DTW’s romance with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is without doubt both the most high-profile and the most interesting arts merger to come out of the recession so far, as the choreographer-led company joins forces with a presenting/service organization to create New York Live Arts. In the process, Bill T. Jones gets a dedicated space, and DTW gets access to greater financial resources. It looks great on paper, but then mergers often do…

7. IRS Revokes Exemption for up to 300,000 Nonprofits

This story went virtually unreported this year, but those who continually bemoan the rise in the number of nonprofits in this country had a bone thrown their way this year. The Pension Protection Act of 2006 required that all nonprofits, even those with budgets of less than $25,000 per year who had previously never been asked to file annual returns, complete the 990-N “postcard” form requesting basic information like addresses and website URLs. Those who failed to file for three years in a row risked having their tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS. Well, it turns out that nearly half of the 714,000 organizations in this budget category in fact failed to file, and after a number of temporary delays and reprieves, an unknown number were thrown overboard (the IRS will publish a complete list early next year). While most of these were likely dead organizations (indeed, some of them may never have been alive in the first place), an examination by yours truly of some of the organizations “at risk” for revocation in the San Francisco Bay Area revealed that a disproportionate number were arts organizations, and their ranks included a few that were observably still active.

6. Net Neutrality Has a Bad Year

This is a story that is very much still being told. For several years now, technology activists have been raising awareness of the issue of “network neutrality,” warning that without legislation to codify existing practices, there will be nothing to prevent internet service providers in the future from selectively crippling or blocking entirely websites that compete with their own business interests. Many see net neutrality as particularly important to the arts, given their usual position outside of (or even in opposition to) the corporate sphere. With the 2008 election of President Obama, a supporter of net neutrality legislation, there was hope that such legislation might become a reality with the current Congress. But things got complicated in 2010. First, a federal court ruled earlier this year that the Federal Communications Commission did not have authority to tell Comcast that it had to treat bittorrent transmissions on its networks the same way as everything else. While not the final legal word, it provided a strong negotiating hand to anti-net-neutrality forces. Then, Google, one of net neutrality’s staunchest supporters in the corporate arena, got into negotiations with Verizon, one of its most trenchant opponents, and came out with a compromise that left most neutrality advocates unsatisfied. Finally, just last week, President Obama’s FCC announced new guidelines that hew fairly closely to the Google/Verizon compromise, prohibiting discrimination on “wired” services but leaving the increasingly important mobile universe a veritable Wild West. (This hasn’t stopped Verizon from making noises about a legal challenge right out of the gate.) We’ll have to stay tuned to see what happens next, but with a Republican House and little evidence of broad-based passion for net neutrality among the populace, the chances for a legislative solution (the surest means to the outcome that advocates desire) seem slim for the moment.

5. State Arts Agencies Continue to Struggle

After a disastrous 2009, this year saw little respite for beleaguered state arts agencies. Despite a few success stories, such as in Rhode Island where the governor tried to cut the budget of the state arts council by over 50% only to have the cuts fully restored by his own legislature, these remained the exception rather than the rule. States and territories suffering double-digit cuts in 2010 (i.e., to their FY 2011 appropriations) included Arizona (down another 28.9% after a brutal 54% cut last year), DC, Georgia (which nearly had its council eliminated but “escaped” with only a 66% massacre), Kansas, Louisiana (where Gov. Jindal finally succeeded in squeezing nearly half the money out of the coffers), Missouri (where state officials are raiding a fund intended to provide dedicated support to the arts and humanities), New Hampshire, New York (with the largest total dollar decrease of the year by far), Northern Marianas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania (already reeling from an exhausting and only partially successful advocacy campaign last year to save the agency), South Carolina (another state council to overcome near death in 2010), Texas (28%), Virginia, and Washington. Only Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, South Dakota, and Wyoming saw increases of a comparable magnitude.

4. Culture Wars Simmer

Ever since the 2008 election, there have been signs that the American right wing might return to the hostile stance it had adopted toward public subsidy of the arts starting in the late 1980s and continuing through the 1990s. Some of the evidence is in item #5 above: massive cuts or threats to zero out funding to arts councils by Republican governors in “red” states like Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina; last year’s brouhaha over former NEA Communications Director Yosi Sergant’s attempt to involve artists in President Obama’s United We Serve initiative comes to mind as well, as do Glenn Beck’s occasional editorials on artwork associated with perceived enemies. With the election of a majority of Republicans to the House of Representatives has come new pressures on the funding of NPR, which got into an unfortunate fight with conservatives over the firing of right-wing commentator Juan Williams a few months ago. The most dramatic confrontation yet took place just last month, when a conservative news service publicized a gay-themed exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that included a video by deceased artist and AIDS victim David Wojnarowicz with images of a crucifix covered with ants. After the controversy found its way to the ranks of Republican House leadership, the director of the Smithsonian ordered the video removed, even though the footage in question occupies only 11 seconds of the four-minute video, which itself was not a centerpiece of the exhibition. The action, unlike previous skirmishes, has produced a gigantic backlash in the visual arts community, with dozens of museums and other institutions around the world showing Wojnarowicz’s work in protest. The Andy Warhol Foundation, a major supporter of the exhibition, has also threatened to deny future funding requests from the Smithsonian. The situation seems to be under control for the moment, but don’t be surprised if things start heating up again in 2011.

3. The UK Tries American-Style Arts Funding

Feeling pressure from the economic recession, the new conservative government in England imposed cuts of 100 million pounds on the primary grantmaking agency for high-profile arts organizations on the island. The UK’s arts system has been described as a “hybrid” between the near-total private-sector dominance of American arts funding and the near-total government support seen throughout continental Europe. These cuts, totaling more than 22% of Arts Council England’s appropriation, represent a clear move toward the American side of the equation, especially when coupled with ACE’s decision to require prospective grantees, for the first time, to submit applications for funding (previously they had simply been selected by the agency though a noncompetitive process). The development is significant not only for its implications for England’s arts scene, but also as a potential bellwether for the rest of Europe, where politicians have been making noises for years about cutting back historically generous government support of artists and arts organizations and moving in the direction of greater privatization.

2. The NEA Charts a New Path

We knew that when Rocco Landesman arrived last year to take over the reins of the National Endowment for the Arts that, whatever the results, they would certainly be interesting. On that score, the agency has delivered in 2010. “Creative placemaking,” the role of the arts in revitalizing local communities economically and otherwise, is emerging as Rocco’s signature issue, with a raft of urban-focused Mayors’ Institute on City Design grants given out in 2010 and more coming in 2011 under the rubric of a new program called Our Town. The NEA has pursued a public engagement strategy beyond any in the agency’s previous history, webcasting the meetings of the National Council on the Arts (the NEA’s equivalent of a board), accepting questions via Twitter during panel discussions, and inviting a huge bevy of service organizations to take in the announcement of its strategic plan for 2012-16. It’s gone on a hiring spree, bringing marquee names like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s Jason Schupbach into the fold. A revitalized research department is pumping out new publications at a rapid rate, incorporating new media elements into some of them, and embracing its role as a convener, having brought together an A-list group of practitioners to consider how to measure “livability” this summer. What may turn out to be Rocco’s most far-reaching project, however, is his efforts to make inroads with heads of other federal agencies around ways in which the arts intersect with their work. Given that the budgets of departments like Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation dwarf the NEA’s and that the Endowment has continually been vulnerable to attacks on culture-war battlegrounds, this attempt to break down silos and “embed” the arts in other arms of the federal government is one of the smartest gambits we’ve seen in a long time.

1. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Passes

For years, the high cost of health insurance, especially for freelancers in our employer-centric system, has been identified by researchers and advocates as one of the biggest impediments to a thriving artist workforce. In 2010, after decades of failed attempts, Congress finally passed a comprehensive health insurance reform bill designed to counter some of the worst excesses of insurers while sharply reducing the ranks of the uninsured. To do this, everyone will be required to purchase insurance, even healthy individuals (although this mandate is currently being challenged in the courts). Fractured Atlas has a primer on the implications of the health care reform act for artists here; the short version is that by 2014, insurance companies won’t be allowed to discriminate or charge you a higher rate based on your gender or health status, take away your coverage after you get sick, deny you coverage based on a pre-existing condition, or set annual or lifetime limits on benefits. Although you will be required to buy insurance, if your income is in the low 40s or below, you’ll qualify for government assistance in paying for it. And if you’re a small business (like a theater company or gallery), you’ll likely be eligible for tax credits for giving your employees health insurance. While the full impact of the law won’t be known for years, if not decades, its provisions should disproportionately benefit artists and faciliate a significant improvement over the status quo.

Honorable mention:

  • Low Power FM Radio bill passes
  • Americans for the Arts introduces the National Arts Index

And as a bonus, here are my picks for the top five new (in 2010) arts blogs:

5. NYFA Blog (Michael Royce)
4. ArtsAppeal (David Zoltan)
3. 2am Theatre (various)
2. Your Town Performs (Craige Hoover)
1. Jumper (Diane Ragsdale)

(Note: had Devon Smith started 24 Usable Hours a couple of months later than she did, it surely would have made this list.)

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4 Comments

  1. Posted December 30th, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the great list, Ian, and for the vote of confidence! Truly honored to be placed with such auspicious company.

    • Posted December 30th, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Honored. Thanks for the shout, Ian. Means a lot to ArtsWave to be recognized in this way, by you, and in such great company.

  2. Posted January 3rd, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Ian, thank you for putting the NYFA blog on your top 5 list this year. I am honored to be mentioned, and I look forward to seeing what Createquity and my fellow arts blogs have in store for 2011.

  3. Posted March 18th, 2011 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    Just found your post while going through art articles. I think you did a very good list. Looking forward to see what creatiquity willy be showcasing to art enthusiasts this year.

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  1. [...] is a blog written by Ian David Moss, Fractured Atlas’ Research Director. His “top ten” list of important arts policy stories was posted late last year, but if you missed it, it is well [...]

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