GR Lipdub

Grand Rapids LipDub – photo by Rob Vander Sloot

Each year, Createquity offers a list of the top ten arts policy stories of the past 12 months. You can read the 2009 and 2010 editions here and here, respectively. In addition to the main list, I also identify my favorite new arts blogs that started within the past year. The list, like the blog, is focused on the United States, but is not oblivious to news from other parts of the world.

For the most part, 2011 saw the continuation of trends that had already been set in motion in previous years. The economy continued to be an issue for arts organizations worldwide, affecting government revenues in particular. The NEA moved in directions foreshadowed by its actions in 2010. And the culture wars, while not translating into meaningful policy change for the most part, were waged in the background once again.

10. Federal cultural funding dodges a bullet

The newly-elected Republican House of Representatives made a lot of noise this year about cutting funding to arts and culture, particularly the Corporation for Public Broadcasting after a forced scandal involving NPR’s then-vice president of development. Democrats refused to take the bait, however, and even amid multiple standoffs over the federal budget this year, cultural funding survived largely intact. The NEA escaped with a 13% decrease from last year’s originally enacted funding level, and CPB and the Smithsonian actually saw increases. Notably, the Department of Education’s arts in education budget was also saved (albeit with cuts) despite an Obama administration recommendation for consolidation under other programs. That said, the saber-rattling this past year leaves little doubt about the prospects for arts funding under a Republican Congress and President in 2013 and beyond, and it will surprise no one if the same battles are fought all over again in 2012.

9. Grand Rapids LipDub shows how creative placemaking is done

By now you’ve heard the story: city gets named on a top ten list of “America’s dying cities”; college-aged filmmakers galvanize the community to organize a coordinated response. The result: “the greatest letter to the editor of all time,” also known as the Grand Rapids LipDub. Involving thousands of people and requiring a near-total shutdown of the city’s downtown area, the video went viral over Memorial Day weekend and has received nearly 4.5 million views as of December 31. But more than the feat itself, the video is notable as an incredibly effective example of cost-effective creative placemaking. The mayor of Grand Rapids was very smart to give this $40,000 production (mostly raised through sponsorships from local businesses) his complete support: it is just about the best advertising for his city one could possibly ask for, conveying a completely unforced and compelling charm while fostering community pride among local residents along the way.

8. Crowdfunding goes mainstream

Just two years ago, Kickstarter was a novelty and no one had heard of IndieGoGo. Now, these and other “crowdfunding” platforms that connect creatives with fans and financial backers have become an indelible part of the artistic landscape, particularly for grassroots, entrepreneurial projects. This July, Kickstarter alone reached the milestones of 10,000 successful projects and $75 million in pledges over slightly more than two years, numbers that compare favorably with major private foundations’ support for the arts. Meanwhile, crowdfunding is fast becoming a, well, crowded market, with new entrants lured by the profit-making potential of serving as banker for the creative economy. RocketHub, USA Projects, and the Power2Give initiative are just three of the more significant new entrants of the past two years, and similar platforms are popping up to serve technology startups and the broader charity market.

7. Orchestra unions take it on the chin

The recession has been not been kind to arts organizations of any stripe. But it’s been particularly hard on orchestras, those most tradition-bound of arts organizations, forcing musicians’ unions to cough up big concessions. The resolution of the Detroit Symphony’s six-month strike in April had minimum salaries dropping nearly 25% and a partial incentive pay system introduced. The same month, the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy, seeking to avoid its unfunded pension obligations, and won 15% salary reductions from its musicians in October. The Louisville Orchestra also filed for bankruptcy late last year, hasn’t played since May due to negotiation impasse, and has started advertising for replacement players. The NYC Opera, after abandoning its longtime home at Lincoln Center, is threatening to turn its orchestra into a freelance outfit and cut its choristers’ pay by 90%.  The New Mexico, Syracuse, and Utica Symphonies all bit the dust, costing musicians hundreds of jobs.  The craziest story was perhaps the resignation of two-thirds of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s board because musicians took too a few days too long to accept a 9% pay cut. Breaking with tradition, the League of Symphony Orchestras this year sounded the alarm bells with a plenary session titled “Red Alert” at its national conference.

6. Another tough year for state arts agencies

The big headline, of course, was Kansas (see below). But state arts agencies, having already suffered big losses in 2009 and 2010, slipped backwards once again this year. More than twice as many saw decreases as increases, and in total appropriations dropped 2.6% as of August. Horror stories included Arizona Commission on the Arts, which lost its entire general fund appropriation (the agency stayed alive thanks to business license revenues); the Texas Commission on the Arts, which lost 77.7% of its funding; the Wisconsin Arts Board, whose budget was gutted more than two-thirds by controversial governor Scott Walker; and the South Carolina Arts Commission, which made it through with a 6% shave only because the state legislature overrode Governor Nikki Haley’s veto of the entire agency’s budget. Nevertheless, as in previous years, a few states and territories had clear victories: the Ohio Arts Council avoided a cut proposed by the Governor and instead achieved a $1 million increase, and the Utah Arts Council and Institute of Puerto Rican Culture saw increases of 50% or more. Still, state arts agency appropriations remain 40% below their 2001 peak levels – and that’s not even taking inflation into account.

5. Western Europe blinks on government arts funding, while South America and Asia embrace it

Already reeling from the UK’s decision to institute major cuts from Arts Council England and broader pressures on financial markets, Europe continued to see a move toward a leaner, more American-style cultural policy. The wave of change caught up the Netherlands this year, as Holland cut a quarter of its cultural budget. Meanwhile, as with the economy more generally, the balance of power is starting to shift toward former Third World nations. Hong Kong announced that it had hired starchitect Norman Foster to design a $2.8 billion, 40-hectare cultural district in West Kowloon; Abu Dhabi is building a $27 billion mixed-use development on Saadiyat Island featuring two gigantic museums and a performing arts center; and Rio de Janeiro has doubled its cultural budget in anticipation of the 2016 Olympics. Singapore and Shanghai are also seeing gigantic government investments in the arts.

4. Cultural equity #Occupies the conversation

It started small: just a poster in the magazine Adbusters, a ballerina dancing on the Wall Street Bull. But by the time October rolled around, Occupy Wall Street was a household name, changing the national conversation from one obsessed with austerity and the national debt to one that took a serious look at who benefits and suffers from our nation’s economic policies. Around the same time, the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, a philanthropy watchdog organization that promotes social justice, published Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change by Holly Sidford, a broadside against the longstanding funding practices in the arts that make it hard for organizations representing communities of color to build a strong base of support. It didn’t take long for people to make the connection within both the arts community and the Occupy movement. And when news of the San Francisco Arts Commission possibly cutting its Cultural Equity Grants program hit during a national Cultural Equity Forum hosted by Grantmakers in the Arts – well, let’s just say it’s the most digital ink this topic has had spilled on it in a long time. I suspect, like so many times before, this particular conversation will dissipate without leaving behind any lasting change on a large scale. On the other hand, it’s a good bet that pressure will only continue to build on longstanding cultural institutions to justify the massive resources they have built up over the years.

3. Irvine Foundation gets engaged

About a year ago, I posted a comment on the myth of transformative arts experiences that struck a chord with readers. In it, I told my own “getting hooked on the arts” story and observed that “none of it involved being in the audience for anything….Getting out and seeing a show now and then is always nice. But getting to be in the show – that’s what’s truly transformative about the arts.” It turns out I’m not the only one who’s been thinking along these lines: in June, the James Irvine Foundation announced a wholesale change to its arts strategy that emphasizes audience engagement, including active participation. To support the new strategy, Irvine set up a new Exploring Engagement Fund that serves as “risk capital” for organizations to experiment with new programming strategies that are designed to increase engagement. Irvine is certainly not the first funder to focus its attention on audiences – the Wallace Foundation, for example, has made cultural participation a priority for years, and many have been happy to fund efforts to place cultural programming into context (“talkback sessions” and the like). But Irvine takes the concept much farther by explicitly encouraging programming that places the audience at the center of the experience, offering participants the opportunity to create, perform, or curate art themselves. It’s really quite revolutionary given the history of arts funding, and a lot of eyes will be on this initiative as it develops.

2. Kansas Arts Commission loses its funding

Proposals to eliminate state arts councils have become a dime a dozen in recent years. Just since 2009, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Texas, and several others have staved off threats of demise of varying seriousness. Experienced arts advocates, while taking each individual case seriously, tend to brush off the trend as a whole, seeing it as an inevitable part of the game. Except this year, the unthinkable happened: for the first time since the state arts council network was created in the 1960s, one of them actually had to close down shop completely. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, fighting negative media coverage and his own legislature tooth and nail, followed through on his vow to destroy the Kansas Arts Commission and transfer its activities (but not its funding) to the nonprofit Kansas Arts Foundation. In doing so, he actually cost his state more money in federal matching funds than it saved in direct expenditures. National and local advocates are optimistic that this decision will eventually be reversed, but until then, Kansas has the dubious distinction of being the only state without a functioning arts council.

1. Creative placemaking ascendant

When Rocco Landesman was chosen to lead the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009, he almost immediately signaled his interest in the role of the arts in revitalizing downtown public spaces. Two-plus years into his term, “creative placemaking” has emerged as his signature issue, and the lengths to which he and Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa have gone to promote it have been remarkable. Beyond the NEA’s Our Town grants, the inaugural round of which were announced this past summer, the big news this year was the formation of ArtPlace, a consortium of major foundation funders designed to extend Our Town’s work into the private sphere. Headed by former CEOs for Cities head Carol Coletta, ArtPlace has already distributed $11.5 million in grants and has an additional $12 million loan fund managed by Nonprofit Finance Fund. Its recent solicitation for letters of inquiry drew more than 2000 responses. Our Town’s future at the NEA is by no means assured, but by spurring the creation of ArtPlace, Rocco has guaranteed that creative placemaking will be part of the lexicon for quite a while.

Honorable mention:

And here are my choices for the top new (in 2011) arts blogs:

  1. Lee Streby
  2. New Beans (Clayton Lord)
  3. ArtsFwd (Karina Mangu-Ward and others)
  4. Creative Infrastructure (Linda Essig)
  5. ArtPlace blog (various) – note the RSS feed on this one is impossible to find, it’s here.