The Thinker at the Detroit Institute of Arts - photo by Quick fix

The Thinker at the Detroit Institute of Arts – photo by Quick fix

Each year, Createquity offers a list of the top ten arts policy stories of the past twelve months. You can read the previous editions here: 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. The list, like the blog, is focused on the United States, but is not oblivious to news from other parts of the world. I am grateful to Createquity editorial consultant Daniel Reid for contributing the entry on the arts and the GDP.

This year provided us with a mix of hope and stress. While boasting its share of concrete triumphs and failures, such as the launch of several field-building initiatives and the very high-profile flaming out of the venerable New York City Opera, 2013 was most notable for providing us with markers along the path of longer-term trends. With the struggles of the Great Recession largely behind us, arts stakeholders increasingly turned their attention to non-financial matters, planning for the future and seeking to invest wisely. Yet the specter of fear and dysfunction in Washington, DC hung over the arts field to a degree not seen since at least the Bush years, sapping enthusiasm from even the most passionate of government idealists.

10. Changing of the guard at ArtPlace

As noted in last year’s top stories roundup, creative placemaking was cruising for a bruising in 2012. While a number of factors contributed to the backlash against the signature arts policy push of Rocco Landesman’s tenure as NEA Chairman, by many accounts, the brusque style of ArtPlace’s founding director Carol Coletta didn’t help. Under her leadership, ArtPlace – a private-sector collaboration between 13 of the nation’s largest arts funders initiated by Landesman and the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker – came under fire for failing to disclose its funders’ geographic restrictions, missing opportunities to thoughtfully measure creative placemaking’s impactbeing cavalier about gentrification and other social justice considerations, and supporting a project that alienated the people it was trying to help. In the midst of all this, Coletta decamped for a VP position at the Knight Foundation in March. Her eventual replacement announced in December, following an interim stint by former William Penn Foundation president Jeremy Nowak, was the NEA’s Chief of Staff Jamie Bennett, who had ingratiated himself with arts stakeholders across the country in his now-former position and earned widespread admiration in the process. Change is in the air at ArtPlace (the organization is moving with Bennett to New York, for one), and many eyes are watching the fledgling creative placemaking standard-bearer as we head into 2014.

9. City Opera bids farewell

Amidst near-death experiences far and wide, New York City Opera is the biggest and most famous U.S. arts institution yet to actually fail as a result of the Great Recession. The once-mighty company, which had visions of a $60 million annual budget as recently as 2008, had drastically scaled down its ambitions following a disastrous season during which it presented no full productions, lost its (brand new) general director, and managed to draw down or lose the majority of its endowment. By the time George Steel took over in 2009, most of the damage had been done, and City Opera could no longer afford its just-renovated home at Lincoln Center. A last-ditch effort to raise $7 million (including a first-of-its-kind-at-this-scale “save the opera” $1 million Kickstarter campaign) fell short, and the organization announced it was beginning bankruptcy proceedings in October.

8. Arts’ impact on GDP gets counted

Advocates at Americans for the Arts, the NEA, and elsewhere have spent years touting the arts’ economic impact, on the theory that legislators and executives will find this argument singularly compelling and respond by taking their fingers off the “defund” button. This year, their case got official recognition from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), which calculates GDP. First, in July, the BEA revised its methodology for calculating GDP to include the money businesses spend to develop intellectual property, including artistic work like music and film; this added 3% to our nation’s economy overnight and underlined the economic importance of investment in creative work. Then, in December, the BEA and the NEA jointly released the first-ever official tally of the value the arts add to the U.S. economy, which they will continue to track annually (note that this does not yet take into account the methodological changes announced in July). The total – $500 billion a year, more than the entire tourism sector – impressed some mainstream news outlets and was promptly put through the spin cycle by a few creative-industry advocates, especially in Hollywood. But the bigger surprise was how little excitement the story seemed to generate in arts circles – perhaps because of the report’s bad news about the arts’ post-recession recovery, the fact that commercial fields accounted for the bulk of the value, or the omission of ancillary spending (such as on dinner before the theater) that often figures prominently in more localized economic impact studies.

7. The arts (start to) get serious about diversity

Yeah, yeah, I know. Talk is cheap, and our field has been dithering about multiculturalism, demographic change, and the need to diversify boards, staffs, and audiences for decades. Looking beneath the surface of the blogosphere debates, however, one does get the sense that momentum for action is growing. 2013 was the year of the inaugural SphinxCon, a convening on (racial) diversity in the performing arts spearheaded by a man who was almost the next Chairman of the NEA (more on that below), and the leaders of numerous relevant service organizations showed up to put their views on the record. One of those service organizations, Theatre Communications Group, is now a year into an extensive and very public “diversity and inclusion” initiative and the conversation is bubbling up at other service organizations as well now that financial survival is no longer everyone’s first priority. Meanwhile, Grantmakers in the Arts had its entire board undergo training by the People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond, a leading purveyor of anti-racist thought. These are small steps in the grand scheme of things, and diversity is not the same as justice, but one can’t help but be encouraged watching the organizations charged with leading the field begin to walk and not just talk.

6. The arts research field makes halting progress toward field-building

Last year, I got so frustrated with the state of arts research that I blathered on for more than an hour to the University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center about all of its problems and how to fix them. Fortunately, it turns out that I’m not alone in seeing the need and opportunity for reform of our field’s research infrastructure. The first and easiest step toward a better future was always going to be a way for people working in this area to communicate more effectively with each other, and May’s launch of the Cultural Research Network goes a long way toward checking that box. This was also the year that the arts began to flirt in a big way with Big Data. We saw the launch of two immense arts data aggregation initiatives, Philadelphia’s CultureBlocks (building off of the work of Social Impact of the Arts Project researchers Mark Stern and Susan Seifert) and Southern Methodist University’s National Center for Arts Research (aggregating data from the Cultural Data Project, TRG Arts, and elsewhere). A third project, the Harvard-led Initiative for Sustainable Arts in America, is set to launch in Detroit and the Bay Area in 2014. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Cultural Data Project is taking a look in the mirror with a gigantic, year-long strategic planning process that looks like it will result in major changes for the organization and the field. We’ve got a long, long way to go, but the progress we saw in 2013 toward a smarter, more tech-savvy, and more collaborative knowledge management infrastructure in the arts is highly encouraging.

5. The NEA remains Chairless

When Rocco Landesman left his post as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in December 2012, there was no reason to think that the leadership transition would be anything but smooth. Senior deputy Joan Shigekawa, who had long been rumored to be the one running the agency behind the scenes anyway, became the acting head, and a search for a new director began immediately. Yet as the year dragged on, the process became murkier, and at this point no one seems to be sure when the Obama administration (which is in charge of the search) might get around to formally nominating a new leader. Sphinx Organization founder and National Council on the Arts member Aaron Dworkin is the only individual to have publicly confirmed being a candidate for the gig and was widely seen as the frontrunner for the post until he pulled his name from consideration over the summer; he would have been the Endowment’s first black chairman. NEA fans can take heart at least in the fact that they are not alone; the National Endowment for the Humanities has likewise been without an official leader since May.

4. A roller coaster year for the DIA

My goodness, where to begin? The Detroit Institute of Arts has had more ink spilled on it in the last two years, it seems, than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It was just last August that the DIA was triumphantly celebrating the passage of a millage, or property tax, in three counties providing the institution with ten years of guaranteed operating support, allowing it to build its endowment and place itself on secure footing for the future. But then in July the City of Detroit announced that it was filing for bankruptcy, placing the DIA’s art collection – much of which is owned by the city – in jeopardy. The city’s state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has reportedly asked the DIA to come up with $500 million to help appease creditors and lead Detroit out of the doldrums, which is about how much the auction house Christie’s has assigned to the value of artworks purchased with city funds. The most interesting potential outcome has the city and the DIA entering into a “grand bargain” involving an effort to raise the $500 million from a consortium of local and national funders, including the Kresge and Ford Foundations, and turn the DIA into a private entity, free from city control. Regardless of how this one turns out, it’s an object lesson in the potential pitfalls of direct government involvement in arts institutions.

3. Edward Snowden shows us we’re not as free as we thought

A 30-year-old former government contractor running off with four laptops and goodness knows how many hard drives’ worth of secret intelligence documents made for a compelling news story, but its connection to the arts wasn’t immediately clear. After all, the initial disclosure – that the United States National Security Agency was working with phone companies to collect metadata (information about calls, though not the calls themselves) en masse – seemed like it might be No Big Deal. It’s helpful for our national security apparatus not to have to wait for days to know who’s called whom, they still have to get a warrant to figure out what was actually said, and it’s all cleared by the Congress and our courts. Right? But as more and more revelations from Snowden’s treasure trove have come to light, the creepier this whole thing has gotten, and the more it’s become apparent that virtually nothing we do online is secret from the government. The NSA has intercepted the fiber-optic cables that carry Internet traffic to collect information on activities without the Internet companies even knowing; the agency “repeatedly broke surveillance rules,” and there have already been cases of “willful misconduct” like stalking love interests. Here’s what’s important to keep in mind from an arts perspective: the United States has always prided itself as a country of free expression. One of the most important ways in which that freedom of expression has been possible is that the government has intentionally held back from giving itself the means to control it, letting social norms and the marketplace have influence instead. There may be little reason to think that Uncle Sam would be interested in some random artist’s work today, but imagine a change in administration, another war, and a widespread movement for social change in which artists play a big role, and all of the sudden 2013 might start to look a lot like 1983.

2. Obamacare gets off to a rocky start

For years, advocating for health care reform was a major priority of a number of arts organizations. Once the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed, several of those organizations (including the one that I work for) took the opportunity to declare victory and go home. Pretty much no one considers Obamacare to be perfect, but the legislation had been widely praised and its rollout highly anticipated in arts circles because of its promise to better serve freelancers, particularly those with modest incomes (due to the subsidy provided). However, when healthcare.gov couldn’t process enrollments to save its life upon its October launch, it all started to look very, very fragile – particularly the already popularity-challenged individual mandate that is, according to economists, the linchpin to the entire system. It looks like the worst fears about Obamacare’s shaky launch have passed, but not before a small business exchange and the employer mandate were delayed for a year and other concessions were made to mollify angry citizens, many of which are arguably bad policy. Make no mistake, the Affordable Care Act is here to stay – but how much it’ll actually end up improving things is perhaps a bit more in question than it seemed a few months ago.

1. Wait, who elected these guys?

When the dust from the 2012 election cleared and Barack Obama was still president, the Senate was still Democratic, and the House was still Republican, we knew we were in for another two years (and most likely four) of divided government. But I don’t think too many people expected it would get this bad. The hyper-partisan environment, political infighting between conservative and establishment Republicans, petty power struggles between branches of government, and the determination to treat even the smallest difference of opinion as a virtual fight to the death all contributed to one of the least productive Congressional years in recorded history and a 16-day government shutdown that earned the ridicule of the world. As much as this sucked for all of us as citizens, it all but put the kibosh on any dreams of transformative arts policy coming from the Obama administration. With so many urgent national priorities getting in line to be ignored or gamed by a Congress that is far more adept at drafting press releases than passing legislation, maintaining the status quo is about the best that arts advocates can hope for in 2014.

Honorable mention:

Happy 2014 to all!

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