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Rocco to Rock the NEA?
by Jerome Weeks 23 Jul 2009

The New York Times reports today that political goodwill toward the National Endowment for the Arts has been on the rise — thanks, in part, to the very cautious, bridge-building efforts of the two previous NEA heads, Bill Ivey and Dana Gioia. They turned NEA funding more toward non-controversial, non-confrontational areas such as design and […]


The New York Times reports today that political goodwill toward the National Endowment for the Arts has been on the rise — thanks, in part, to the very cautious, bridge-building efforts of the two previous NEA heads, Bill Ivey and Dana Gioia. They turned NEA funding more toward non-controversial, non-confrontational areas such as design and arts education. Will Rocco Landesman — whose appointment is expected to be confirmed next month — follow their lead or strike out on his own?

Well, that has been the question since Landesman’s appointment, hasn’t it? What the Times adds is some data depth to what Ivey and Gioia actually did with the money, and it focuses the questions about what Landesman can and could do:

Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a lobbying group, said Mr. Gioia’s effort to create a better image for the agency through these initiatives was “a good thing but not necessarily a long-term strategy.”

“The emphasis needs to be using the leverage power of a tiny amount of money so that more things get funded in more places by people themselves,” Mr. Lynch added … The fiscal impact of the endowment’s small budget has always been magnified by its outsize cultural influence, the thinking goes; the stamp of approval conferred by even a paltry N.E.A. grant can provide an arts organization with a powerful fund-raising tool….

The question that probably most preoccupies people in the arts is whether Mr. Landesman will succeed in securing more money for the endowment — its budget still pales in comparison with those of other federal agencies — and if he will try to restore the N.E.A.’s ability to make grants to individual artists. Although he declined to comment on his plans for the agency, Politico.com reported this month that Mr. Landesman had expressed an interest in reinstating those grants. …

Some say that it is unlikely that the grants will be revived, because they require the N.E.A. to approve art before knowing its content. “I don’t know if we’re at a point where the political process can withstand the vicissitudes of contemporary art,” Mr. Ivey said. “It does expose the agency more than any other single activity.”

  • Goodwill not on the rise here.
    THe NEA should not be in the granting business. Their choices are poor. And they promote group arts and discriminate against single artists.

    What they should be doing is setting up art centers that anyone in the community can have a fair opportunity to use. Take the rent and administration costs off most art groups and they have a real chance for success. Also outside of the NEA clutches and they can make real profits for their hard work.

    The layers of art bureacracy ruins everything and wastes most of the money, and does little to support anything in any art but a few committee art darlings.

    • The NEA shouldn’t have given money to any gallery. My art center would be a gallery for all the city plus any traveling shows.

      The art center idea would resolve all issues connected with the NEA choosing any group over any other. They would be out of the ‘choosing their favorites’ business.

      What’s worrisome for the NEA is that they couldn’t force their opinions on anyone. Their history of choices IMO is not very good.

      With an art center ALL groups are funded. Then there would be reasonable competition for best times at the center between art groups – competition always leads to better art than government sponsored favorites.

      And with art centers that support local arts, the community would be much more involved in arts.

      There is also no reason why national traveling shows couldn’t tour such art centers. Something that is so prohibitive now that only the safest dullest art can do it – look at the musicals we’re stuck with.

  • If you read the original NYTimes story — or heck, even just the excerpts included here — you’ll see that the NEA “discriminates” against individual artists because it lost the ability to award grants to individual artists. By order of Congress. That was one of the fallouts in the culture wars of the ’90s; Congress killed the individual grant program. Hence, the current interest in whether Rocco Landesman might reinstate that power.

    As for your repeatedly advanced proposal for publicly funded arts centers as a cure-all: These won’t resolve the controversies and oversight issues because as long as any tax money funds part of the centers, legislators and tax payers have the right and the power to have some say in what goes into them. So you’ll eventually get arguments over what art gets displayed or staged — and funded by us.

    In fact, that’s exactly what happened in the fights over the Mapplethorpe and Serrano photos. The NEA didn’t give direct grants to those individual artists; they gave money to a gallery and an arts center, and those two created the tours with the photos that sparked all the craziness. Your proposal would not change that from happening again.

    • Nothing in your response addresses my point. The proposed “art center” set-up is basically the same thing as any currently funded gallery or performing arts center — when it comes to the issue of tax payers’ control. When taxpayers and their elected reps do not want their tax money going to display what they deem are sexually explicit or religiously offensive artworks, they still can turn off the money spigot. This is what happened with the NEA in the ’90s; this is what would happen with the proposed art center.

      The claim is that this art center will be free from bureaucracy, judgment or conflict. I don’t think any of that’s true, but that’s beside the point here: You’ve essentially shrunk the free market into a single building; it would be open to all. But tax money will still fund it — at least to get it built –and therefore tax payers, if they wish, can still shut it down.

  • There is no problem with debate over art. That’s good for the art centers.

    Most of the offensive art you talk about is NEA darlings anyway. And there is a feeling by many of us, that this is art that the NEA is forcing on people. When it is offered by artists at the art center, there will be debate for sure. Even controversy. We should expect that, unless all the art is safe and sanitized. Hopefully the controversial art will challenge. But so what. That would be the community having dialogue with the artist and he with them – and on a local level.

    I doubt that anyone would stop the art center that allows a hundred local art groups access to perform, or display their art, or assemble for crafts, or listen to speakers, or watch plays, or read new books, etc. etc. just because of a naughty photo!

    There wouldn’t be a single building. That’s the point. There would be a major art center for big cities perhaps, but there would be neighborhood art centers too.

    Would there be bureaucracy? (One sneaky way to argue is to blow up any point to extremes. I don’t think I ever said it would be completely free of every drop of bureaucracy. Mostly my ideas are better. I don’t think I said they were perfect.) And Yes. Let’s get rid of bureaucracy. Let’s be wise enough to set these art centers up so that they are open and fair and will resist bureaucrats.

    I note that when the public is engaged enough, the bureaucracy will subside.

  • This isn’t a case of “debate.” This is a case of people electing representatives to shut down what they deem offensive because their tax money was used to display it. And nothing you’ve proposed would address that — you simply don’t believe it would happen and belittle the notion that it could.

    So exactly what part of the culture wars in the ’90s were you out of town for? Congress didn’t shut off the NEA’s individual grant programs because they felt Mapplethorpe and Serrano and performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes and John Fleck were “NEA darlings.” They shut it down because of charges the art work were “anti-Christian” and advocated a “homosexual agenda.” That’s why the NEA now includes a “decency clause” people must agree to.

    You doubt anyone would try to stop an arts center “just because of a naughty photo.” Talk about “blowing up a point to extremes” — or diminishing it to nothing. Yet your description is more or less what happened in the ’90s, and it would happen again with the proposed arts centers. Any publicly-funded center that will permit anyone to put up what they feel is art is a publicly-funded center that will soon find itself a target for citizen action. How do I know this for certain? Because libraries are essentially the kind of art center you describe — only for books — and libraries are constantly having to negotiate local community standards, political oversight, budget battles and public scandals over the ways they select and display books.

    And every year, dozens of books that many of us would deem perfectly inoffensive get yanked off shelves around the country.

  • But no single book brings down the library. Nor would some art debate bring down an art center. So what if citizens protest. That means the art is alive and influential – not safe and sanitized. That’s a good thing.

    The culture wars were more about scandal than art. The media was making a lot of copy while missing most of the real issues of art. I don’t think they had anything seriously to do with art. That’s my opinion.

    I’m not for the NEA. And their decency clause is indecent to me.
    That’s why I’d like to do without them.

    If we had controversial art here in a provincial town like Dallas, we would probably have a debate and the artists trying something new, would probably loose the fight and their works banned. So what? I’ve got that now. Least it all would be in the open – not the behind the scenes art choice of the NEA. And the work would at least be shown to the public before being yanked by yahoos.

    Half price does a banned book display every year. But they won’t display the zines THEY ban! And they are as liberal in this town as you can get.

    Look extreme art is going to have critics – some extreme is groundbreaking and innovative (Bacon’s weird portraits) some of it is really trash (almost all conceptual art except for “Snake Oil” the one that is opposed to all conceptual art. Hey and by the way that ground breaking art has been banned on this blog – no mention of that. So maybe its time for you to look in a mirror right here.

  • In other words, you wouldn’t mind it if your arts centers banned the display of some art works — because that’s what you mean when you shrug off “a single book” being banned as not threatening a library’s future. So there goes any commitment to free and open access.

    You’re still talking about debate and controversy and criticism. I’m talking about pulling books, cutting funding (or even just threatening to cut funding) as forms of closing off discussion — because that’s what happened to the WPA in the late ’30s, federal cultural programs in the McCarthy ’50s and the NEA in the ’90s. You’re still talking about single photos, I never have. The library (or the arts center) may not close but librarians and administrators get terrified for both their jobs and the rest of their budget getting axed. So they don’t stock other items as well. It’s been shown: One banned book leads to dozens of others being silently “not picked up.”

    At the risk of repeating myself: Your “one photo” and the media uproar didn’t kill the NEA. Two photo exhibitions and four performance artists — and the Republican/conservative Democrat senators and representatives who saw a political wedge issue against a Democratic president — they killed the NEA’s individual grant program. Your comments continually imply that this was a good thing.

    Half-Price Books is a store; it’s private property. They can choose what they want to put up. A library isn’t, it’s tax-supported — hence, the difference between a profitable business choosing what to display and a library with a commitment to information access. This would seem to be a rather basic distinction in a discussion about public funding.

    As for your work, you were profiled on this site — unlike the thousands of other artists and arts groups in North Texas that we eagerly want to get to.

    And hear from.

  • You are making it sound like somehow I approve of censorship in the arts. Nol Reread my posts.

    YES I am opposed to individual grants from the NEA, because they choose them. Instead of committee chosen art – which is always bad, have an open-to-all art center. Surely you see the difference. One is a group of elitists in a back room awarding a handful of darlings, cash. The other is a community center open to all – that’s thousands more than a handful. In the real world, I know that the community will get upset if you say anything creative – sort of like your reaction to these new ideas from me.

    Being an artist, musician, writer, publisher, etc, in Dallas, I know that backlash happens. I’ve had to live with it. I seriously doubt you have for 40 years. That includes this blog that is oblivious to groundbreaking events in music (the Big list) art (the snake oil video etc.) literature (the zine hall of fame) etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

    This blog does not spotlight the best art in town, mine or others, because that is too controversial. You avoid the real art issues clearly. So first solve the problems that you have control over.

    My art center would allow those thousands to get access to the public by signing up. So that takes care of the thousands of other artists and art groups in North Texas – and by the way, most flee the area for lack of respect.

    My profile was the least you could do – really the least. You couldn’t have dismissed my 40 year career and innovations faster. You also refuse to cover other excellent Dallas artists. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen an advocacy art group featured that protested anything in the mainstream arts – Stuckists in art, ULA in literature, etc.
    Will you get to all this? We will see.

  • I certainly see the differences between the NEA and the proposed arts center. I also see the similarities, which you refuse to recognize. The proposed arts center doesn’t solve a problem facing any government-backed cultural activity in a democracy. You have yet to refute this: A tax-supported arts center that is set up to display all artworks submitted to it will eventually run afoul of citizens’ groups that seek to remove specific art works or shut down the center entirely. The groups may achieve these efforts simply by threatening political action. Obviously, this has happened even with government programs that select only certain artworks for funding and not simply threw open their doors.

    You have minimized such public actions as “controversy” or “backlash” or “debate” because that way they’re containable, even something to be celebrated as an expression of free speech. But in three different eras, with three very different federal arts programs — and to this day, with many libraries across the country — citizen groups and political leaders have either banned artworks or crippled the programs that supported them.

    That doesn’t mean government arts programs or libraries are not worth our support. It does mean that nothing in your arts center would change this central tension in cultural funding: In a democracy, tax-payer support means tax-payer control. At the same time, such a popular basis for support does not necessarily lead to great art. That’s why we have Hanna Montana and “So You Think You Can Dance.” It’s called “popular culture” for a reason. That’s also why the NEA instituted its committee selection process for artworks — so that federal funding wouldn’t go to the kind of commercial culture that sells anyway.

    As for this site, if you check on the “About us” button in the upper right-hand corner, you’ll find a mission statement. It talks about community; Art&Seek is designed to report on, explain and express the cultural community in North Texas. You are only a small part of that community, and the statement doesn’t mention supporting “revolution” or promoting Tom Hendricks as major goals.

    As I noted earlier, there are thousands of artists in North Texas, and we are eager to report on their worthy efforts and hear from them.

  • You say, A tax-supported arts center that is set up to display all artworks submitted to it will eventually run afoul of citizens’ groups that seek to remove specific art works or shut down the center entirely. Duh. So does every other art business. You add in so many words that they may achieve it in a provincial berg like Dallas – duh! This blog is such an art ‘center in a way. That could happen here too. Groups may try to shut this down if you do something controversial. So we should stop doing this? Is that why my ideas are always opposed?
    You also seem to dismiss the people of Dallas as those who would oppose all but mainstream art. Not so IMO. Popular culture here in Dallas is provincial, true. But I think the majority would not oppose great art to the point where they would win over the entire community and shut it down.
    My point is that my art center would minimize much of this controversy and it would be more an open discussion than what has happened in the past with the NEA. It’s a mildly innovative idea worth some mild discussion.
    But, for me there is a bigger provincialness here than art protestors. I suggested a MILDLY innovative change in the arts – instead of an NEA for a small group of the artists, we use the money to support regional art centers – and without any questions about what that would mean, or exploration of the ramifications, or details about it, or how would such and such be done. there was one person who immediately stubbornly opposed it completely. Well Jerome there are a million Jeromes in Dallas like you. They were at the Dallas Times Herald, they are at the DMN and the Observer now, and at the mainstream TV and radio channels, and at many college radio stations and KERA and WRR too. I’ve talked to one or more in every place. The consistent motto is that any idea that is too new is to be shut down . And what is particularly weird to me is that many like you worry about shutting down art – while you’re doing just that. My worry is not the opponents of the NEA, it’s Jeromes like you. You may have different names, but you all are the same stubborn, no-change blockades. That is the real problem in Dallas – it has nothing to do with the NEA or its opponents.
    Other Dallas artists see this and flee. I just shake my head.

    About us says ” a community online where creative people can come together to find, discuss, create and react to art.” Didn’t say stubbornly oppose everything that is new.
    You are right that it doesn’t say supporting revolution, but it doesn’t say blocking it at every turn either, or making sure you celebrate the generic when so much exciting and revolutionary is here in this specific time and place in history. Why would you try to block so much excitement?. Or why block the groups that advocate change, or the work that openly challenges the status quo. You seem to want an open forum. In one breath, but oppose it in every sentence to me. When I’m open about my opinions there seems a rush to shut them down.
    I shake my head.