Editorial by Dawoud Bey on Government Support for the Arts

How Can the Government Support Artists?

By Dawoud Bey


President Barack Obama recently named Broadway theater producer and impressario Rocco Landesman as his nominee to head the National Endowment for the Arts. Not too well known outside of theater circles, Landesman's nomination has nevertheless reignited an impassioned conversation about the role that government should play in supporting the arts. This conversation is particularly meaningful since it comes after an extended period of conservatism and periodic hostility between the arts community and the broader society that began in the 1980s.


Founded in 1965 with a mission to, "bring art to all Americans," the NEA has dispensed over 130,000 grants totaling more than $4 billion since its inception. The have included grants to a wide range of activities and institutions in every congressional district, from theater festivals, historic preservation, design competitions and museum exhibitions, providing critical seed money to many of these initiatives. While the benefit of this support is undeniable, it has been the NEA's support of certain museum exhibitions and its significant support of individual artists through its artists fellowship program that have generated the most controversy and brought it into direct conflict with vocal politicians and members of the public. The upstart of this was that, under political pressure, the Endowment began requiring artists to sign an "obscenity pledge" promising that their work would not otherwise offend the tastes of a hypothetical "Middle America."


In the wake of these skirmishes, the Endowment was increasingly decimated and the Individual Fellowship category ultimately eliminated. The art world has been smarting from this diminished support for the past two decades, hoping for a moment of renewed and perhaps even enhance government support for the arts. The climate of optimism created by the election of Barack Obama has only further fueled those hopes. And with the naming of a new Endowment head has come renewed calls for the reinstatement of the individual artists fellowships, an idea entirely inconsistent with these economic and social times I'm afraid. Given the state of absolute economic turmoil that we are in, it would seem exceedingly difficult to justify significant individual support to artists that comes with no public stipulation attached.


While I do think it's imperative that artists be supported, it's equally important that artists consider ways to enhance their own connections to the larger social fabric through their individual art practices. I believe that any revived individual artist fellowship program should thus carry with it a requirement for public service, whether in the form or public readings, conducting of public workshops, classes, or other forms of direct public engagement. In this way the government can provide support to the arts community and cash strapped organizations while preventing the kind of disconnects between artists and the larger society that so effectively fueled earlier culture wars. Like so many disastrous mistakes that the current administration is attempting to rectify, this moment presents an opportunity to finally get the equation between government's obligation to artists and society right.



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  • I agree with Dawoud and feel hopeful about the new NEA appointment of Rocco Landesman. Now more than ever we artists need both support and involvement in public community and society needs our voices.

  • I think it's about time the U.S. Government focused more on supporting the Arts. We are way behind Europe in these matters despite the fact that we have a rich heritage of our own.

  • What Dawoud says that's different, however, is that he's not talking about a no-string-attached grant, instead that some of their effort has to be out in the community. That's was Clinton's stand, during his presidency, he said something to the effect that he's fine with the NEA for "creation of public art or celebrating out diversity".

    So the question posed is: what should be the form of that support?

    I'll also throw in another element, I'll never forget reading a comment by a gay artist who was upset about a call for artists to "create a positive image of homosexual life" and the artist said something like, "What if I'm not feeling very positive right now? What if my message is mixed, and not unilaterally positive?"


  • Yes we need individual artist grants from the NEA! Artist create jobs, provide revenue growth for the economy, educate the public about the humanities and help people find a better sense of what a good quality of life is. Chicago needs more Art news! Thanks for this blog Dawoud!

  • Dawoud, I have to agree. We all need to do pubic service on some level. I also want more parents to volunteer in their children's schools!

    But this is the deal. I think "artist" should be a job for more than the folks who can snag an N.E.A. award.

    How can we supply hard working artists, who have something significant to say and pass through a jury process, with a real job actually making their art? And not doing all the other jobs most artists take on to live!

  • Thank you Dawoud for your article. Government support for the arts and specifically individual artists, needs support from all levels of government - national, state and local. This support must include "no strings attached" grant money that would allow artists to do the work they do. The interchange of art/artist to viewer, though what ever means that interaction takes place IS service to the community. Let's continue the dialog. Even though the economy is currently in a mess,there is no time like the present to ask for what we want!! After 20+ years of funding cuts and lack of understanding in regards to the vital function art plays to enrich, enhance, educate, provoke, enthrall...society...Obama does renew hope.

  • In the late 1970s and early 80s the Federal Government did in fact create thousands of jobs for artists across the country with a very strong public service component under the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) Title VI act. This provides and excellent model that the Obama administration could easily replicate. It's a excellent model for employing artists that a lot of people seem to have forgotten about or never knew about in the first place. The artists employed by CETA worked in a wide range of non-profit organizations and institutions providing workshops, performances, exhibitions and instruction. They included visual artists, musicians, poets and writers, film and video artists, dancers and choreographers among others. Was anyone reading this employed by CETA? I'm surprised how few people have heard of it. I was a CETA artist from 1978-1980/1.

    As for the NEA individual artist fellowships, in the past they too often went to artists who were part of a small circle of art world insiders based largely in New York. The fellowships worked most effectively when they were part of a "regrant" program. That is NEA funds were given to local arts councils who then convened local panels to award the fellowships to artists in that region or city. Along with a public service component, I would also suggest that the fellowships--if they ever are reinstated--should be awarded locally, thereby avoiding the scenario of a group of art world insiders sequestered in Washington, DC deciding which artists receive hat is ostensibly a national fellowship. Otherwise the choice of panelists (or consultants) pretty much deteremines who will receive these fellowships.

  • And no, simply making a work of art and presenting it does NOT, to my mind, constitute a viable "service to the community." We are no longer in an era of :"no strings attached" when it comes to government funding...whether of banks, automotive companies, or artists! What is needed is a paradigm that speaks to the common and collective good; a win win situation for everyone. A radical rethinking and revisioning is called for in these times. Given the extreme cutbacks that public institutions are facing, this moment provides an incentive and opportunity to wed the support of artists to the support of institutions and their public. But to fund artists to do whatever they like on the public dime with no explicit public service is a problematic paradigm from the past in my opinion.

  • yes, i think its vital that artists give something back or make some effort to connect what they do to a larger audience or public. i think is such an outdated and arrogant view for artists to say, "my artwork alone is a service to the community".

    and, i agree with joyce above who says we need to reimagine how artists can have real jobs. i believe artists need and could be productive not only in schools, but elsewhere too. i just met some artists from scotland who work within large corporations (insurance companies, banks, etc.) providing creative writing and acting classes to the workers. there are many possibilities...

  • Wait a minute.

    Don't any of you people standing in line for a handout see that accepting money from the gov't is the flip side of CENSORSHIP?

    What about all the people whose aesthetic isn't deemed worthy or appropriate?

    Being an artist means standing up for what you believe in and encouraging others to do so too. It does not mean moving to the center while those at the periphery get cut off!

    Better to turn down the co-opting hand out than to see individual freedoms curtailed.

    You could be next.

  • Good piece and I think, if reinstated, it should go down the way you described.

  • I am very divided in my feelings on artist grants.

    I think government support should be primarily for infrastructure, which helps many people. All too often individual grants become simply yet another tool for Consensus Curator types to butter the bread of their house artists. As Sol Le Witt said, most win them when they no longer need them and don't win them when they do. (Even though I must add that I have happily won many grants.)

    Your "service" idea is a good one. The artworld was not innocent in the "disconnect" --- it also had to do with grants to trendy "gag art" which fed into petit bourgeois cliches concerning artists as con-men (pun intended).

    I think forms of infrastructure though are the most important, from a payable health insurance scheme to REAL Kunsthallen would be best.

  • First, I just want to thank every single person for participating in these discussions. Logistically, the more discussion that happens, the more leverage I have to implement more tools. For example, the Bad at Sports site (badatsports.com) has, on their homepage, a "Recent Comments" box. It keeps the discussion going, even as the post gets "pushed down" over time. (That's why I created a "discussion tab" on top)

    I'm also encouraged that even in beta, by just word of mouth, we've gotten this much activity. Imagine once we launch the site!

    Discussion is critical to this site, so feel free to not just comment, but propose topics for discussion. This is about dialogue (to the point that I pitched the word "dialogue" as opposed to "talk" as the title.)

    So that's housekeeping.

    MSB! Great to see you here, like you, my conflict is with grants in general. I used to be against them, but over time the argument - "we spend billions on other stuff, what's a few million for artists" - started to get to me, especially recently, with the word "trillions" getting in the budgetary lexicon more and more.


  • "The House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior has approved a bill that sets the annual budgets for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities at $170 million each for the 2010 fiscal year."


  • For those of you who are reading this blog, do continue to follow, check in and comment. I am going to periodically try to take on some of the stickier issues having to do with art in Chicago, such as those complaints from those artists who see themselves as being marginalized or ignored by the mainstream press and art world. There are, of course, many art worlds, each with radically different interests and dictates (not sure if everyone knows this). When those from one "art world" complain about being ignored by those in another "art world", some clarification is called for. I'll try to unravel some of these issues...and upset a few people in the process, I'm sure. Keep reading.

  • In reply to dawoudbey:

    This support must include "no strings attached" grant money that would allow artists to do the work they do.

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  • In reply to dawoudbey:

    Johnrocks, why do you feel that public money should be used at this moment of economic instability and hardship to provide grants to artists that do not require them to do anything other than take the money and disappear into their studios? What do you think is wrong with asking artists to provide some form of public service--to be determined in consultation with the artist and NEA--that creates more engagement between artists and the public. What do you think is flawed about this. Why do you think artists should continue in these harsh times to have the privilege of not being accountable to the larger society in return for its support? As an artist I certainly value the work that we do, but is that it?

    Do feel free to respond at length with more than a single sentence, thanks. Public dialogue is needed on this.

  • In reply to dawoudbey:

    Hi all,

    I can see why any artist would want "no strings attached", because then there would be no strings attached! I want a free house with no strings attached, too!

    The question is do the PIC (the people in charge) think we should just get money to make art. Does the tax-paying public think we should get this money without strings attached. That's the question, I think.

    Also, though, I said in another post, it would have a lot to do with the fine print. For a $2,000 grant, how many hours would I be expected to put in? At what point would it not be worth the money? How much say would I have in the type of service I do?

    So the devil is always in the details.

    FYI- Time Out listed the local NEA winners http://www3.timeoutny.com/chicago/blog/out-and-about/2009/07/nea-stimulates-chicago-arts/

  • In reply to dawoudbey:

    Artists who work in a college or university system are required to perform service, along with teaching and other responsibilities. Most of us get hired because we already serve as gallery advisers, on committees and panels, lecture circuit, focus groups, curatorial, and as writers on art, etc.
    I think it is critical for artists to interact with society and educate people about what we do, and why art is important and significant to each human on the planet. The schools have fallen down on that task. To share our expertise and train other artists, to guide people in pursuing art careers, and I always hope to teach the material I wish I had known when I was a student or just starting out.

    I feel I benefit from giving, and learn from others along the way.

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