The Top 10 Arts Policy Stories of 2012

From Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History's Family Fallapalooza

From Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s Family Fallapalooza

Each year, Createquity offers a list of the top ten arts policy stories of the past 12 months. You can read the previous editions here: 2009, 2010, and 2011.  The list, like the blog, is focused on the United States, but is not oblivious to news from other parts of the world. This year, for the first time, I opened up the creation of this list to Createquity authors past and present, and I am particularly grateful to Jackie Hasa for contributing the entries for orchestra labor strife and SOPA/PIPA versus the internet. If you’re interested in being a part of a growing and increasingly active team here, a reminder that the deadline for the Createquity Writing Fellowship is coming up on January 8.

2012 was a year of cautious optimism for the arts. As the economy continued its slow recovery, for the first time in four years, government funding at the state level did not see a decline, and the slash-and-burn tax-cutting fervor of political conservatives seemed to be blunted by November’s election results, at least temporarily. There were stories of individual organizations making good, and ambitious initiatives seemed to be around every corner. And yet in certain contexts, the arts were still or newly facing dark days. Arts communities in much of Europe and the Western world struggled with austerity measures, as did orchestra musicians in the United States. And in many Muslim countries, art and artists found themselves in the middle of (or even the target of) oppression, strife, and violence. One comes away from this list with the sense that things are going to be interesting in 2013.

10. Nina Simon reboots the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

I don’t normally include innovation stories from rank-and-file arts organizations on this list, but Nina Simon’s transformation of Santa Cruz MAH has been so far-reaching and impressive that its broader fieldwide significance is hard to deny. It’s not just about the numbers, though Simon has those too: attendance has more than doubled, the busiest day drew triple the participants over previous years,and there’s now a $350,000 cash reserve. More interesting, however, is the combination of Simon’s fame and her daring programming that has put the MAH “on the map” in a way that simply wasn’t the case before. Simon is the rarer-than-you-might-think example of a consultant who has successfully transitioned into an executive role, and in the process she has eagerly seized the opportunity to reshape a struggling institution into a playground for her (and the community’s) ideas. Through new programs like the You Can’t Do That in Museums Camp, an exhibition-as-exhibition, and more, Santa Cruz MAH is charting the frontiers of what it means to be a participatory museum, and we get to have a front-row seat by virtue of Simon’s long-running and admirably transparent blog, Museum 2.0. Simon’s approach may not be right for every arts organization, but it surely presents one very clear vision of the future, one to which attention must be paid.

9. The European funding model shows more cracks

Let’s be clear on this one: the core Western European philosophy of seeing culture as an essential arm of government is not on the verge of dissolving, and the wealthy countries that have historically been most faithful to this notion–including Germany, France, and the Scandinavian nations–have so far shown little willingness to abandon it in favor of American-style privatization fever. At the fringes of the European Union and beyond, however, government-centric cultural policies underwent substantial stress in 2012. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, the national museum closed due to lack of funds provided by a non-functioning government; in Greece, spending on the arts has dropped 35% since 2009, and in Italy, Rome’s MAXXI Museum has been put into receivership. Arts Council England, having already suffered major cuts two years ago, is looking at a potential loss of 150 staff, while cities like Newcastle are looking at even more drastic cuts. This is a trend to watch in 2013.

8. SOPA/PIPA vs. the Internet

In early 2012, an enormous Internet protest caused both houses of Congress to indefinitely postpone voting on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA).  These bills sought to regulate Internet content in the name of fighting piracy, which split arts organizations into two opposing camps—those with a vested interest in strong copyright protections, which included many major entertainment industry unions and associations, and those concerned that the bills’ more draconian regulations would dampen creative exchange, which included a broader range of organizations, from McSweeney’s to Fractured Atlas to Dance/USA.  After tabling SOPA/PIPA, Google and other major tech companies helped Congress draft the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (the OPEN Act) as part of a more balanced approach. Public comments on the OPEN Act are encouraged, even as its sponsor, Darrell Issa (R-CA) pushes for a 2-year moratorium on Internet regulations.  Efforts to control the web also failed on the international stage, when a U.N. committee charged with rewriting Internet rules couldn’t get buy-in from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and dozens of other nations due to concerns over censorship.   Lawmakers may not resolve these debates in 2013, but in the years ahead, we will doubtless see continued efforts to regulate Internet behavior.

7. The arts face violence and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa

Where to begin? In Syria, where the ancient city of Aleppo has been devastated by that country’s civil war? In Mali, where a fundamentalist group called Ansar Dine has destroyed world-famous heritage sites in Timbuktu and threatened musicians with bodily harm? In Somalia, where some 18 media figures, including a popular poet and playwright, have been assassinated by the Al Qaeda-aligned Al Shabab, for daring to mock the militants in public? In dozens of countries where mass protests broke out, some turning violent, in response to a video made by an American filmmaker and con artist with insulting depictions of the prophet Muhammad? In the midst of all the tragedy, we also had uplifting stories like the role that young artists had in galvanizing Egyptian dissent during the Arab Spring. From our comfortable perch in the US, it can sometimes feel like the arts are a frill, a plaything for the privileged, or simply inconsequential. It seems fair to say that in this part of the world, today, the arts matter.

6. State arts councils turn the corner

State arts councils reversed a four-year slide in 2012, finally coming out of the annual budget appropriations process in the black. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies reports that total appropriations rose 8.8% in the aggregate to $282.9 million, although most of this change is attributable to substantial increases in Florida, Michigan, and the District of Columbia, each of whose appropriations more than doubled over the previous year. (Michigan’s budget grew an astounding 366.8%, albeit after having sustained equally astounding cuts in previous years.) In addition, two anti-arts governors found themselves with egg on their face this year, as the recently vanquished Kansas Arts Commission made a triumphant return as the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, and the South Carolina Arts Commission fought off yet another veto threat from Governor Nikki Haley. Other states with budget increases of $1 million or more included Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio. (Update: See comments for info about Connecticut.) And while the Arizona Commission on the Arts continues to receive no legislative appropriation from its state government, it did win a ten-year re-authorization against the odds. The year was not completely free from bad news, however, as the arts councils in Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Utah all suffered double-digit cuts, continuing a trend in the first three states.

5. Labor strife reaches new heights in orchestras and beyond

This year was rife with labor unrest in the arts, most notably among orchestras. Driven by fundraising shortfalls and sometimes debt from capital projects conceived in flush times, musicians walked out—or were locked out—all over the U.S. Unions in Chicago, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Spokane, Louisville, New York, Philadephia, San Antonio, and Indianapolis all successfully reached deals that ranged from modest raises (San Antonio) to 32% wage cuts (Indianapolis). The strife will continue in 2013: in the Twin Cities, both the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra have been locked out for months, with no resolution in sight. We’re also seeing some signs of resilience and cooperation, as the previously disbanded Syracuse and Utica Symphony Orchestras vowed to return for the 2012-2013 season. In 2013, we may see more attention paid to the Colorado Symphony as a potential model. Following their own labor conflict in 2011, they revised their contract to allow for more organizational flexibility. For instance, the orchestra can now play in smaller groups, allowing them to perform in communities around Denver in minor venues.

4. Rocco steps down

It wasn’t a surprise, but it was news nonetheless: Rocco Landesman left the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) after three-plus eventful years as Chair. During his tenure, he set the agency on a technocratic course with more explicit attention paid to the instrumental benefits of the arts, particularly their economic value. His highest-profile accomplishment while in office was the creation of two new grant programs to encourage “creative placemaking,” Our Town and ArtPlace (more on that below). His most enduring legacy, however, may turn out to be his work, along with Senior Deputy Chair (and now Acting Chair) Joan Shigekawa, to develop partnerships between the NEA and other branches of federal government and to set the research office on a more strategic path. Lastly, it was during his tenure that the NEA began more explicit efforts to welcome the public into its decision-making process, offering a series of live webcasts of convenings and meetings including those of the National Council of the Arts, the body that oversees the NEA. No hints as of yet as to who may replace him, but we won’t likely know until well into 2013.

3. The Detroit Institute of Arts gets a millage

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) was in a pickle. The venerable museum was facing a financial downward spiral, and it was one of the few institutions of its kind not to receive funding from either its city or state. The solution? Advocate for a millage (a form of property tax) to support the DIA in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, in exchange for free museum admission for residents from those counties. The measure passed in an election on August 7, and will raise a whopping $23 million annually for the DIA over the tax’s 10-year duration.  There are charitable and less charitable ways to interpret this development, and arts world response seemed to be divided between them. On the one hand, here was an example of a cultural institution demonstrating relevance to its community in the most direct, unimpeachable manner possible: a majority of residents in three counties, urban and suburban, voted to tax themselves so that this institution could survive and thrive. On the other, the DIA raised and spent an enormous sum of money – $2.5 million – getting a piece of legislation passed that benefits only one arts organization – itself. No matter how wonderful the DIA may be, that precedent is a bit worrisome.

2. The creative placemaking backlash

It was just last year that the #1 arts policy story was “Creative placemaking ascendant,” so it’s not surprising to see that the movement has come back to earth in 2012, facing public relations challenges on multiple fronts. Much of the discussion has focused on the way that the NEA’s Our Town program and its private-sector cousin, ArtPlace, plan to track and measure the impact of the grants they make – a dialogue begun here on Createquity with May’s “Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem” and continuing in the fall with further back-and-forth between researcher Ann Markusen and the NEA’s Jason Schupbach and Sunil Iyengar. But creative placemaking’s PR hiccups this year went much further than that. They started small, with the revelation that much of ArtPlace’s grant funding is geographically restricted, meaning that applicants in many parts of the country face longer odds than others, and a brutal exposé by the Los Angeles Times of problems within the ArtPlace-funded Watts House Project. By the summer it seemed that criticism and skepticism was pouring in far and wide, from sources as diverse as Thomas Frank (author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?) and Roberto Bedoya, and leading to trite headlines like “Hipsters won’t save us” in mainstream publications. To make matters worse, Richard Florida decided in the midst of all this to re-release his most famous and now-controversial bookThe Rise of the Creative Class, prompting a rash of articles attacking the intellectual origins of creative placemaking work. Some of the criticism has been fair and some of it considerably less so, but there’s no sign as yet that the creative placemaking juggernaut is slowing down as a result of it.

1. Election 2012

This last item is unusual, in that it’s more about what didn’t happen this year rather than what did happen. As things turned out, the balance of power in Washington hardly changed at all and we can look forward (I guess?) to divided government for at least the next two years. By contrast, most analysts agree that if Mitt Romney had won the election and Republicans had regained control of the Senate, both of which were distinct possibilities through most of the summer and fall, what little arts policy infrastructure remains at the federal level would very much have been in jeopardy. Romney had made no secret throughout the campaign of his disdain for the NEA, the NEH, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, even bizarrely choosing to make Big Bird an issue in an otherwise well-received first debate with the President. And it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that conservatives, fresh off a massive gain in Congressional seats during the previous midterm elections, would have felt empowered to take a hacksaw to domestic spending following even a narrow win. With these outcomes averted, it’s likely that funding levels will stay steady or suffer relatively minor cuts in the near future, though with the seemingly endless negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” and debt ceiling, anything could still happen. Election Day also saw the unfolding of some arts policy stories at a local level, most significantly the passage of an important new income tax in Portland that will fund arts grants and arts education.

Honorable mention:

Happy New Year to Createquity readers far and wide, and we look forward to what 2013 brings!

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4 Comments

  1. Posted January 2nd, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Forgotten again. Another year on the Island of Misfit Bloggers for me…

  2. Posted January 9th, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Cindy Clair, President of the Connecticut Arts Alliance, writes in with the following clarification about arts funding in Connecticut:

    The merger of the state arts agency into the Dept of Economic and Community Development has made comparisons of budget cycles really difficult, but here’s the lowdown on arts funding. For FY13, the two grants funds were collapsed into one for a loss of $1.5 million. There was an increase of $750,000 to several new line items (Bushnell Theater and a consortium of producing theaters). Since then the governor instituted a deficit mitigation plan with 4% cuts across the board to line item and grant budgets, then a special session of the legislature in Dec added another 1% cut. These two rescissions mean an additional $200K cut to the arts grants budget. So, no CT did not see an increase in arts funding. Most of the increase to the agency overseeing arts, tourism and historic preservation went to tourism marketing, not the arts. New legislative session begins today. More fun and games ahead.

    • Posted January 12th, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      My state of Michigan is another state which collapsed it’s Art’s Council into the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. You have to look pretty hard on their website to even find the Michigan Council on Arts and Cultural Affairs which this year has a budget of $6 million, about half the budget of the states tourism campaign. In it’s 2012-2013 Strategic Plan the word “artist” is used only once and that use referred to how possible artist residencies could improve the economies of neighborhoods.

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