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.