Sunday, January 30, 2011

How far might the NEA Death Panels go? All the way...

The NEA should be nurturing its plants.
By Barry Johnson

If you think about it for even a second, Rocco Landesman's meditation on the necessity of Theater Death Panels, which we talked about yesterday, wouldn't stop at theater. The same logic that leads Landesman to want to reduce the number of theater companies applies equally to ballet companies, opera groups and symphonic orchestras.

For example, why should the NEA and its Death Panel partners (local and state agencies and large foundations)  spread their meager resources among orchestras, big and small, around the country? Shouldn't they focus on making a few orchestras really strong, financially, instead, and let the others... go, diminish, expire?

We here in Portland will still be able to go to a movie theater for special showings of Gustav Dudamel conducting the LA Philharmonic, after all. Their Beethoven is better than our Beethoven, anyway, so what's the problem? And the methods of musical transmission are only going to get better (see Frank Gehry's ultra-wired New World Symphony concert hall/sound studio in Miami, for example).  Soon, those screenings of the flashy young Dudamel will stream directly onto my own 3-D screen and course through my own exemplary sound system. (Well, if I had such fine appliances.)

And in the meantime, precious dollars will go where they'll really do some good -- to the symphonies in LA, New York and maybe Chicago. OK, Houston, too, because Texas has some serious political clout, or so I imagine the Death Panel deciding.

In the abstract, this is a perfectly defensible proposition. And though "Theater Death Panel" (or in this case Symphony Death Panel) is a term admittedly stolen from the Far Right's disinformation campaign against the Health Care Reform Act last year -- with no basis in fact or logic whatsoever -- an argument based in something like reality can be made to support Landesman's position.

Except it can't.

Landesman is thinking in terms of a national culture -- why does America need more than four or five symphony orchestras? Or five or ten non-profit resident theater companies? But I don't live in America. I live in Portland (and maybe you live somewhere else), my arts needs are best met here, by artists responding to similar conditions. On that basis, they make a claim on my resources -- time, money, brain space.

We don't live in the Galapagos. We know about Dudamel, and we may even want to emulate him (or at least the system that developed him).  But ultimately, the health of my symphony, my theater companies, my museums, my ballet and modern dance groups, my poets, etc., is a community negotiation, in which I have a place at the table.

In Oregon, we don't make a sufficient investment (to use at least one economics term -- in general, I think the pervasiveness of the language of economics has been terrible for us -- as individuals, as communities, as a nation) in the arts, not nearly. And I've heard some sympathy for Landesman's position from representatives of major funders. The solution for our cash-strapped orchestra, for example, involves increasing our allocation of tax revenue to the arts, and it involves work by the orchestra to make sure it's as connected to its community (classical music fans) and the rest of the state as it can be -- as responsive, as creative engaged, as central to our ongoing conversations about ourselves.  That doesn't mean pandering to the audience; it means the opposite -- challenging, stretching, leading us to a series of re-assessments of music and ourselves.

But that's a discussion for another day.

In the post yesterday, I talked a lot about "ecology."  I meant complexity and inter-relatedness. We can't calculate the effect of removing as large a piece as a symphony because we can't calculate the effect of losing a single small theater company. And even "failed" theater companies have an effect we can't measure.

We are not just consumers. We are not automatons. Society is not just a marketplace, even though our language, imagery, efforts at organization, attempt to reduce us to that. That's the one, single great lesson of Art with a capital A.  The marketplace may twist, bend, spindle or mutilate art, but it's clear to anyone with just the barest glimmer of self-awareness that we are more than ticket-buyers, more than our accumulation of technological toys, more than our "tough business language" about "over-supply" of art.

We don't have an over-supply of art. We have an under-supply, because the forces that reduce us to consumer ciphers are so powerful. And Landesman and the NEA should be on the side of more art, not on the side of less. 


Bob said...

Symphony conductor Bill Eddins has an interesting suggestion: Kill the NEA (and maybe the Nat'l Endowment for the Humanities, too) and set up a TRUE national endowment, not a fund that's reliant on annual funding from a politics-playing Congress. Maybe the idea isn't feasible. On the other hand, if it got seed money from the feds and then private support from Gates/PEW/Reader's Digest etc., in addition to many individual donors, it could build up a big enough principle so that funding could actually come from the proceeds, and it would be free of political gamesmanship. Then again, that's the way the Oregon Cultural Trust was supposed to work before the Legislature got its hands on it, wasn't it?

Here's the link:

The Smithsonian may be a different problem -- so entrenched in the federal budget that it can never escape, and so always open to the sort of craven caving-in we've recently witnessed ....

A Good Husband said...

I like the idea of getting rid of the NEA. It's become a political football that's too easy to punt.

If all Arts are local, then why not focus locally? Do a better job of focusing on local donors (foundation & individual) and put minimal effort into seeking NEA funding.

Personally, I think the Art world's reaction to Rocco's words are out of proportion. I wasn't there, but he doesn't seem to be advocating a selective culling of arts orgs, but instead a refocus on the NEA's priorities.

If I were him, focusing on areas where I could make a substantial difference seems to be a reasonable idea.

Bob said...

Seems like for most arts organizations right now, the value of the NEA lies far less in the relatively paltry amount of money it contributes to budgets than in its status as a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval: If the NEA gives you a grant, no matter how small, it's a signal to every other potential donor that you are worthy of support. So the question is, absent European-style state support of the arts, which is being scaled back anyway, is NEA symbolism either a good way for the government to be spending its money or, for the arts themselves, worth the hassle in grant-writing energy and inevitable political gamesmanship? Is there a better way to go about this thing? Is it the NEA itself, more than struggling arts groups, that should be a primary candidate for a mercy killing? I don't take a stance one way or another. But as Landesman says in HIS context -- and Landesman has a reputation for lobbing bombs because he likes the noise they make -- it's a subject that needs to be brought up.

One thing to remember: The NEA doesn't have the power or authority to convene "death panels." It can only choose to make grants or not make them. Many, many organizations, especially at the grassroots level, which is where innovations so often come, do just fine with no NEA support at all.

And one more: Even in Landesman's area of specific expertise, theater, his background in New York commercial theater seems to be clouding his vision. Lots of things are wrong with the regional/resident theater network, and as he implies, it's always a good idea to examine what's working and what isn't. I have no problem with that. Government, and the industry itself, should be rigorous. That said, there's a difference between success in the eyes of Broadway investors and success in terms of what works in the rest of America. (I do NOT say that to bash New York, which is quite obviously the nation's, and in many ways the world's, cultural capitol.) But away from the intense financial pressures of private capital that drive Broadway decision-making, the regions have the opportunity to try things differently, both in the avant-garde and in cultural conservation. For instance, I remember a few years ago when Nicolas Hytner's revival of "Carousel" hit New York and everyone was astounded at how dark this warhorse was. Really? Ask any high school theater director, community theater group, regional professional company that had tackled the musical over the years: This came as a surprise to no one except those whose general approach to theater is to please Broadway audiences and turn a piece of theater into a commercial engine that will run for many years. In this case, and many like it, New York was wrong and the provinces were right. Often, of course, it's the other way around. But is it really necessary to sacrifice either? Can't -- shouldn't -- both learn from the other?

Maybe, with a tweak in its point of view, the NEA could be a leader in examining such questions. I don't think Landesman's questioning of the status quo is the problem: questioning is healthy. But if the NEA thinks it has the answers BEFORE it asks the questions, and so lets its desired results shape the questioning, we're in trouble. And like Mubarak, maybe it's time for it to go. On the other hand, I think a healthy, even-handed NEA with the guts and political clout to stick up for what's right (unlike the congressionally purse-stringed Smithsonian) would continue to be a good thing.

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks for your comments, Bob and Good Husband! I'm opposed to privatizing the NEA in the abstract. If the arts are important to us as a nation, then arts proponents should welcome the chance to make the case for them to Congress, and secure funding in the process. Our democracy is SO compromised at this point, that I see the point in a national cutural trust. The argument against is simply that it puts too much power in the hands of a new bureaucracy, one that also can become highly political, even though it's non-governmental.

I think Landesman's comments about "over-supply" DO imply that he believes substantial numbers of arts organizations should close their doors. He doesn't have the power to do that, of course, but the panels of local arts agencies and private foundations combined with the NEA could do a lot of damage. That's entirely different from considering how best to invest the NEA's money (which is public money), of course, which is an entirely prudent thing to do. My understanding of his comments, though, is that if he could, he'd eliminate arts groups until the supply/demand balance point was reached. Eliminate them, not just eliminate funding to them.