The NEA at 50 and The Death of the Public Good

President Lyndon Johnson signs the legislation creating NEH and NEA.

President Lyndon Johnson signs the legislation creating NEH and NEA.

Fifty years ago this September, the NEA was established, in the words of Mark Bauerlein, editor of National Endowment for the Arts: A History, 1965–2008, to “nurture American creativity, to elevate the nation’s culture, and
to sustain and preserve the country’s many artistic traditions.” Alongside other Great Society initiatives, its mission was to enrich the cultural lives of the American public by increasing access and opportunity, and in so doing to forge a national artistic landscape that was as creative, diverse and multifaceted as the country itself.

Fifty years later the NEA struggles on, doing great work despite being the victim of an unrelenting and highly successful conservative assault on the public sector that began with the election of Ronald Reagan and continues to this day. The National Endowment for the Art’s 2015 federal budget allocation clocked in at a mere $146.021 million, which accounts for 0.012% (about one one-hundredth of one percent) of total federal discretionary spending.

When, in 1981, Ronald Reagan’s Budget Director David Stockman proposed a 50 percent cut to the NEA’s budget, it was based on the conservative principle that federal subsidy of the arts amounted to government overreach and intervention and that this support should be provided only by private individuals and corporate philanthropy. Reagan’s election was the culmination of a long campaign by conservative and corporate America to roll back the progress made from The New Deal to the Great Society, to break the unions, to destroy the social safety net and undo the government itself.

It in no way minimizes the efforts of of the NEA Four (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes) to suggest that the ensuing Culture Wars and the moral outrage of senators like Jesse Helms was, as much as anything, a smokescreen. Controversy over cultural issues was used as cover to continue the Reagan Era pursuit of privatization and dismantling of the public sector, and continues to this day. The right wing of America may or may not actually care about immigration, abortion rights, marriage equality or Obamacare, but they care much more about breaking the government and privatizing everything.

It is not difficult to connect the dots from 1980 to today, from Reagan to George Bush, Sr. to George Bush, Jr. to Boehner to Jeb Bush, Trump, Cruz and Rubio. The subject matter, the text, the script, changes over time, some of the faces change, but the agenda hasn’t. And they’re winning. We may win individual cultural battles, but when the war is over they will have won, with the government in shambles and the damage irreparable.

Seen in this context, the arts is only a bellwether of the havoc being wreaked on America by corporations, fronted by rightwing politicians. The gutting of arts funding at the national, state and local levels left a gap to be filled by private mega-donors and corporate philanthropy. This has transformed the non-profit performing arts into a funhouse mirror version of America’s corporate sector.

As of 2012, 55% of all philanthropic funding of the arts went to the 2% of arts organizations with budgets over $5 million. In practice, this imbalance means that the majority of arts philanthropy is a transfer of capital from older, wealthy white people to arts organizations run by other older, wealthy white people in support of art that speaks to their concerns and affirms their biases. Many of the large, established performing arts organizations in this country now look like gated communities of corporate executives.

The non-profit performing arts sector is dominated by the same conservative, “free market” ideology that has come to define much of American life. The nation’s most influential arts management graduate program is funded by the ultra-right wing DeVos family; it is accepted as self-evident that the apex of Peter Gelb’s “spectacular mismanagement” of the Metropolitan Opera was, in the words of critic Terry Teachout, being “unwilling to demand substantial cuts in labor costs from the Met’s powerful unions.” Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater is now the David H. Koch Theater.

In the absence of a meaningful commitment to, or belief in, the public good, all art – high, low, or otherwise – becomes merely entertainment product to be marketed to consumers. When we abandon the idea of the public good, we undermine our ability to create public spaces that are not marketplaces. This includes not only theaters, museums and concert halls, but also schools, libraries, and public broadcasting networks (as Sesame Street’s recent decampment to HBO reveals). The real crisis in the performing arts is the sector’s wholesale capitulation to a set of values that is inherently antithetical to the actual benefit of the arts to citizens in a democracy.

We may live in an America that looks very different than it did in 1965, but the values on which the NEA was founded are as relevant today as they were half a century ago. The performing arts are proliferating outside traditional institutions; in this age of screens and solitude, audiences crave the live and communal experiences provided by DJs, dance battles, and immersive theater. Symphonies, operas, ballets, and regional theaters could avert their self-proclaimed crisis by opening up their doors – and stages – to more people; funders could give more equitably, not only to institutions that replicate their own image of themselves, but to artists and organizations that reflect America as it is today, and who are creating the America of the future.

An unnamed artist attending Common Field’s 2015 Hand in Glove conference in Minneapolis was tweet-quoted as asking, “When are we artists and when are we everyone?”  The answer, of course, is that artists are always everyone, we are members of a greater Public, and it is in acknowledging this that artists can create change. The best way to improve conditions for artists is to improve conditions for everybody. The best way to save the arts is to resurrect the idea that investing in the public good will not only serve us well today, but yield long term benefit for generations to come.

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