You find anything outrageous in the two little paragraphs below? There are many people around the country who will label the speaker a blasphemer and call for his head:
“I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” he said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit……
“And frankly,” he added, “there are some institutions on the precipice that should go over it. We might be overbuilt in some cases.” — Rocco Landesman, new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. — NY Times
In the first paragraph, the new chair actually suggests that artistic merit should have a role in the award of grants for the arts. Radical. This comes in reaction to the NEA’s policy, developed over the last decade for political purposes, to spread money around as widely as possible, favoring particularly well-connected or politically correct applicants. Stated bluntly, it is a policy that downplays art in favor of identity.
As the author of numerous grant proposals for arts programs, I’ve monitored this annoying trend for several years. It’s evident at all levels, and has even spilled over to the private sector (foundations and corporate giving programs), where obsequious executives and managers nervously parrot one another’s attempts to (a) cover their asses and (b) avoid controversy. RFPs come with micro-management questions addressing the ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities represented among applicants’ boards, employees, and even constituencies. Oh, and the art? Damn near irrelevant.
These issues are usually covered up by the word, “minorities.” I once challenged a mid-level program manager at the Florida Department of Cultural Affairs to define “minorities” as strictly and unambiguously as they define “allowable items for reimbursement.” She laughed out loud and told me nobody in her department would touch it.
“Can I count Jews?” I asked. “How about substance abusers? Under the law, certain substance abusers are considered disabled persons. Do I count the gays on my board as minorities? I have a gay Cuban on my board — do I count him twice?”
Shit. Gay and Cuban? In Miami Beach, is that even one minority?
So it’s nice to contemplate the elimination of this crapola and have proposals for art projects evaluated on their artistic merit. Or am I just an idealist? Or a neo-conservative?
The second paragraph actually suggests that despite their marvelous intentions and backbreaking efforts, maybe not every struggling artist or would-be impresario out there deserves a Federal grant, and that perhaps it would be a better investment of scarce public funds to award grants to institutions with proven track records and solid artistic credentials. This makes sense to me, too — bearing in mind the prior discussion of the primacy of artistic merit during proposal evaluation — but the hue and cry across the land might be enough to deafen the deciders.
Of course, this isn’t a whole lot different than any other Federal revenue stream, where drives the gravy train. The NEA’s budget is a negligible fraction of the Defense Department’s, but the principle is the same: it’s who you know and how you can siphon dollars out for your company/jurisdiction/best friend. So maybe Peoria’s theater company consists of an organ grinder and six chickens — are there votes to be harvested? Send ‘em a contract! The show must go on!
Sorry if this sounds elitist, but the fact is, not everybody’s an artist, and not all art projects are equal. If the NEA — and by extension, any entity engaged in and seriously committed to a serious, worthwhile, and results-oriented arts agenda for the nation — wants to do its job properly, it will shut up, sit back, and listen to this new kid on the block.
I predict he’ll last maybe a year.
PS Spell-check wanted to change “crapola” to “carpool.”