The Magazine

The NEA at the Tipping Point

After a decade that saw the endowment successfully expanding Americans' access to art, a new chairman has other priorities.

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By DAVID A. SMITH
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Is there another crucifix in urine lurking just around the corner? Something even worse? The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is at a tipping point, one that has arrived far earlier in the Obama administration than even close observers of the NEA's fortunes might have suspected. And because of things that are going on right now, a success story in a town with precious few of them--and one that, contrary to public perception, conservatives can and do support--stands at risk of being discredited and damaged.

Over the summer, it was reported that federal funds earmarked for the NEA in the $787 billion economic stimulus package supported the screening of a movie described as "the world's only underground kinky art porno horror film, complete with four men, three women and a gorilla," and a stage production of something called Perverts Put Out. Those with long memories might have found themselves thinking, "Here we go again .  .  ."

These grants, however, rather than directly supporting the questionable individual works, were of the keep-the-lights-on variety, given largely without regard to what sorts of things might be staged when those lights were on. Their purpose, like that of the entire stimulus package, was to address the severe economic trouble besetting the country. The nation's arts organizations were among the countless businesses being threatened; many faced critical financial strains due in large part to a sudden plunge in private donations that followed the Wall Street crash. Salary support was one of the specific projects identified in the NEA's emergency grant guidelines. Symphonies and theater groups have employees who depend on paychecks just as much as auto companies and financial institutions.

Such controversies, however, are a reminder that the National Endowment for the Arts continually faces fundamental choices about how best to preserve the quality and seriousness of the arts and make people aware of their importance. There are today developments more worrisome and threatening to the agency's well being than any headline-grabbing "underground kinky art porno horror film." The time is rapidly approaching in which the NEA must once again consider whom it is intended to serve: the American artist or the American public. This is a central question with which it has wrestled over the entire course of its 44-year existence, and the way it responds now will determine whether it will continue to enjoy its current support in Congress and, indeed, whether it deserves that support at all.

The NEA has a new chairman, Rocco Landesman, appointed in May by the new president. Given the level of support from the arts community for Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign, it was expected that his choice to head the endowment would reflect the interests of artists more than the interests of the public at large. That in and of itself did not necessarily portend trouble. Landesman, like the NEA's first chairman, Roger Stevens, is a successful Broadway producer and a man with proven business sense. This should serve him well when he goes before Congress to defend the NEA's budget and in steering it clear of public controversies. But it's also tiresomely pointed out that Landesman is a man who prides himself on pulling no punches, and his supporters are looking for him and his "sharp elbows" and "my way or the highway" attitude to shake things up at the NEA, as though stirring the pot were always a productive thing to be doing.

Within hours of being confirmed, Landesman displayed the latter trait, making disparaging comments in an interview with the New York Times about small-town -theater (in particular, that of Peoria, Illinois) and saying that quality art exists primarily in America's cities. While this may well be true by many measures, it does not necessarily follow that the NEA should be directing its resources primarily to cities (and to the artists who live in them). Landesman further said that creating a program to secure affordable housing for artists--an obviously large city-focused project--should be one of the NEA's priorities. This notion was discussed and largely dismissed back in the mid-1960s at the very first meeting of the National Council on the Arts--the board that advises the endowment's chairman and reviews the grants and initiatives. But now Landesman wants to bring it back. It is further indication that he conceives of the endowment primarily as a way to steer government money to artists rather than a way in which government money can bring more art to the public at large. That the NEA is there, in other words, for the benefit of artists.