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Chapter 2: Seizing the Reins

Alice.ussf I agree with Maryo Gard (3/14/09), there is a false distinction between mainstream nonprofit arts organizations and informal groups that operate for profit or an artist collective that comes together to explore a shared interest or cause. While money is one distinction that separates them, I believe the second is service.  If they don’t deliver on their mission and provide needed services they cannot continue to operate since running on a deficit, spending money they don’t have, isn’t an option.  
The bottom-line is constantly informed by what their public wants and needs.  They have to listen to their audiences to survive.

Even in the best of times artists and arts organizations face challenges with funding and attracting audiences.  In the face of massive cuts during the 80’s that started at the National Endowment for the Arts and resonated through every state and local arts council conservatism swept through the arts and support for the individual artists dried up completely. Today the struggle continues as organizations attempt to balance budgets that refuse to balance. 

But this isn’t a competition, right.  Everyone is having a difficult time surviving this economic down turn that hasn’t hit bottom yet. Like Maryo said “we need to embrace the chaos and take a new look at ourselves”.  That said I want to champion the cause of the individual artists, who doesn’t have to embrace the chaos because they live it. I want to argue for a return to providing artists-initiated grants, money in the pockets of individual artists so they can make art that serves their community, however they define them.  For me the core of the ”Arts” is the individual artist.

As a collective community, we cannot know what is ahead, but we do know that a society without art is a truly bankrupt society.  We know that it is art that makes us human and in these times we need art even more than ever.  But, just as we used the arts to help students make new discoveries in learning, I want to advocate for art that lays bear our social relations to each other, to history and to the possibility of change. 

As a student of Augusto Boal (Theater of the Oppressed, 1974), I agree with him and Bertolt Brecht who contends, “that the popular artists must abandon the downtown stage [and gallery] and go to the neighborhoods, because only there will he find people who are truly interested in changing society.” The reason for this, they contend, is because there is where you will find workers who are the victims of the system.  Today, we can find those victims everywhere, all around us.  In these conditions art for social change can become more than a slogan.

In an article posted online at The Chronicle of Philanthropy about the congressional compromise on the Stimulus Plan, Suzanne Perry (1/15/09) reports that: “The money for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) would go to grants for ‘arts projects and activities which preserve jobs in the nonprofit arts sector threatened by declines in philanthropic and other support during the current economic downturn.’ Forty percent would be distributed to state arts agencies and regional arts organizations and 60 percent to arts projects selected by competition.”

In reality, according to the NEA website, “eligible projects will generally be limited to salary support and fees for artists [already contracted] or contracted personnel. This will apply to all applicants for support under the Act.” NEA funding will range from $25,000-$50,000 and is open only to organizations that have received direct funding from the NEA in the last four years.

Not only are individual artists locked out of this funding but arts organizations have to meet the criteria of being “high-performing organizations “, and “will be advised that they may receive funding under the Act from one source only.” This practically guaranteed that few community based art programs or multi-ethnic organizations will be funded since their source of funding through the NEA ended in the 80’s with the demise of the Expansion Arts Program.  Conversely, it is difficult to get funding from your state arts agency if you don’t receive NEA funds.

Where I live, in Atlanta, this means NEA money for the ballet, symphony, two contemporary art museums and the prima donna High Museum for the Arts. In Georgia, the first round of state funds means awards for salary support to its Grassroots Arts Program Partners, organizations that act like small arts councils throughout the state and of which only a very small number are arts or artists run organizations.
This limits the likelihood that many community-based organizations will qualify for these funds and few arts producing organizations or artists run organizations will qualify, especially at the highest funding level, which is at the NEA. In most states funding is limited to between $7,500 and $25,000, which will not even save one job for a year.

Tyler Green, quoted in the BlogSpot Illicit Cultural Property, believes the problem is that we are not present at the policy tables.  “The arts community should take a lesson from how policy is made in Washington, from the policy-driven infrastructure of the city. The first step: The arts should join Washington's think-tank culture.” He believes this will serve us because, “Smart arts thinkers would have the opportunity to be involved in policy debates, to develop new ideas about how government should be involved in the arts (and not just in one little agency, but across the federal apparatus)…Perhaps, finally, a great nation would have the federal involvement in the arts that it deserves.”

Others like Melissa Tuckey and John Feffer writing in From Arms to Art (1/16/09) believe, “The United States is the largest exporter of arms in the world. Imagine what would happen if we became the largest exporter of the arts instead. “They see this as a way for the arts community to “stimulate our imagination”.
For me the crisis in the arts is not about influence or money.  The problem is that we have altered our art in order to conform to the will of those who control the purse strings. We allow them to decide who we were, what we should do, and our value based on how we ranked with funding panels.

Now that the money is going away I see a chance for us to shake off these constraints.  This is an opportunity to return our work to its original mission; turn back to the people to make our art meaningful, of use and authentic with a renewed sense of purpose.

When artist and arts organizations take up the mission and identity of those in power (i.e. those who control the money) we lose the ability and will to give life to the work we are called to do. What are the new ways to interact with our audiences? Ways that bring down the walls of elitism that separate us.  Ways to engage new audiences—that don’t look like us or think like us but that challenge us to be clear about who we are and what we believe.

We must not be paralyzed by fear of the unknown.  Change means you can go with the inevitable flow or change can mean that you seize the reins and take the lead to transform art and society.

All art communicates the subjective mind of its creator. I believe that many artists and artists run organizations have abandoned their founding missions and therefore have lost their identity. We have taken on the mission of those who fund us stretching our resources thin and morphing ourselves into servants of money instead of our deeper callings.

Perhaps this is a time to break out of our isolation.  An opportunity to reconnect with the                          world and be with those who inspire and sustain us as artists and whom we hope will consume and make use of our art.

Maybe people don’t come to our shows because the work does not speak to them. Maybe they don’t come to us because we should be going to them. Maybe a building that consumes over 50% of your resources is not as welcoming as a public park, a local church, a street corner, an empty storefront, a prison, a hospital, or a grocery store.

Where do we turn to for solutions that are in line with our missions and our unique position? How will we weather the change?

The site for the Institute for Policy Studies carries a long list of actions that I support like art in public spaces; artist residencies in libraries; scholarships for individual artists to return to school; and funds to bring artists into the workplace.  These are ideas I have championed over 30 years of involvement in the arts.  These are ideas that are grounded in an awareness of the value and worth of the individual artist.
The individual artist is capable of delivering what a building cannot. Who can take one thousand dollars and create a process that engages hundreds of people to deliver programs that reach their intended audiences. Imagination and creativity, non-conformity, working on the outside to speak to and about those on the inside, challenging the status quo, wrestling with history to put it in its place, debunking the politics of the now and envisioning progressive social change.

The individual artist is the ground rock of the Arts.  Until we restore the place of the individual artists as a valued professional we will continue to flounder and see policies like we have no. Artists are critical to the future of the arts. If we are to find a way out of this period of darkness, we must allow the light of art to penetrate the dark places in us and around us.

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