The NEA's delicate balancing act

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It’s a happy coincidence that today, the opening of WNYC’s fundraising drive, brings Dana Gioia, the chairman of the NEA, to our studio. After all, WNYC and the NEA both survived tough times in the early 90s, when New York’s mayor wanted to get rid of one and political conservatives wanted to get rid of the other, for supporting supposed pornography. (I leave it to you to figure out which was which.) Both have grown considerably since those uncertain days – WNYC to full independence from the city with its own space and its own identity, and the NEA to a rare plot of bipartisan ground in Washington DC, where, under Gioia’s leadership, it has swung from being a political hot potato to being a political safe haven.

Critics haven’t had too much to complain about, so they’ve settled on this: a safe NEA is not necessarily a good thing. Sending Shakespeare into schools around the country is laudable and important, but it is also safe. Honoring America’s Jazz Masters in an annual concert is likely to provoke spirited debate among the fans of those musicians whose names are not called that year, but for the larger public, it’s a big yawn. These are the sorts of projects the NEA has engaged in on Dana Gioia’s watch. Notably absent have been the Mapplethorpe-type controversies, the art works that engage and enrage. Is this his fault? Of course not. A safe NEA is what Congress is willing to fund; and it’s apparently what the majority of Americans are comfortable with.

Do I sound disappointed? I’m not, really. This has always been the way of the arts world. Of course, much great art came as a result of the patronage of kings and dukes, churches and commissions from wealthy individuals or companies. But the arts have usually been moved forward by artists working on the edges, away from the usual sources of funding. Dana Gioia has told us in his past visits that the NEA now focuses on supporting arts organizations rather than individual artists, thereby – hopefully – getting money to groups that will be able to identify some of those edgier artists in their fields. That kind of arts scouting would be very difficult for a bunch of suits in Washington DC. Now this may smack a little of “trickle-down” economics, but some arts presenters have in fact proven themselves quite adept at picking emerging or overlooked musicians, poets, composers, painters, videographers, and a host of other artists.

What do you think about the NEA’s place, and arts funding in general, in the US? Is it a priority, even in economic turmoil?