NOTE: This was written in 2011. Since then, the NEA has changed some of their financial terminology but the facts on the ground are that the various grants given specifically by the NEA (as opposed to the NEH and other federal granters) cover arts policy and education organizations, associations and administration, fundraising and management with artist services on the bottom of the pile. Nearly all NEA grants are earmarked as “General Operational Budget” which pretty much covers anything the receiving organization wants to spend it on. Just to clarify.
All of a sudden, it's relevant again. Ah, the pendulum, she swings...
The GOP wants to kill off the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) entirely.
The knee-jerk reaction that artists automatically leap to is NO!! Don't defund the arts!! The arts won't survive without the NEA grant money! Holy shit. See how the sky is wobbling back and forth in preparation to fall?
Uh. No. I don't see that.
I see that the bulk of NEA funding goes to pay for administrative salaries. It sure as shit isn't going to pay actors or playwrights or directors. Maybe some scenic designers and light and sound techies are getting their pockets lined with that dough but I doubt too much of it.
So, assuming my reasoning is sound and that most (and by most I mean almost all of it) of NEA grant money goes to the cost of maintaining institutions rather than funding artists, I say let them kill it. Certainly, the symbolism of such a move is significant. The on paper announcement that the Federal Government no longer supports the arts with our tax dollars doesn't look so good but what would the end result actually be?
1) Bloated, giant artistic institutions would have to scale back on the money spent on staff and buildings.
I'm sure this is a sucky thing for all the folks who work for houses at the Goodman and Roundabout and other over-extended institutions for shit wages but can say they work "in the arts" but, if you're only gonna make $7.50 an hour answering the phones or restocking programs or stuffing envelopes, the difference between working for Steppenwolf or The Men's Warehouse is negligible. And no one with a brain who does that sort of administrative work for Old Navy touts themselves as "working in the fashion industry."
2) Bloated, giant artistic institutions would have to face the same music as all those smaller artistic organizations who don't receive any money from the government.
I look forward to the Guthrie Theater version of the WNEP Bowling Fundraiser. Seriously, I do. And I'd love to see a Goodman production with a set and sound design with a $5,000 budget. Can Bob Falls do a quality production with a storefront budget? Now that's a creative exercise, baby!
3) The arts community would all of a sudden no longer have to be afraid of the rabid slobber-monkeys in the GOP Artistic Censorship Brigade.
After all, if the government isn't funding your work, who gives a shit that a Religiously Oppressive Lobbying Group doesn't like your portrayal of Black Transgender Women Who Dress Like Jesus?
For decades, these Factually Challenged Morons have been beating up on government funding of the arts and treating artists as if they were simply needy children sucking the lifeblood out of society with their crazy, godless plays and paintings, poetry and erotic fiction. Lose the NEA and they can't bitch any more about it, can they?
No minions to mow down with their hateful, stupid censorship guns when the minions are off the payroll, huh?
4) Without all that salary-money for things like Marketing Directors and Audience Development Directors and UnderSecretary of the Ushers and the like, the money spent by these institutions would be spent on the art.
OK. That's probably nonsense. We all know that when cash gets tight, it's the art that feels the squeeze the most. Not paying actors or playwrights is so common in theatre's history that it's a cliche we can't seem to escape. It would, however, genuinely expose those not-for-profit companies that are actually FOR PROFIT COMMERCIAL INSTITUTIONS for what they are.
The plain and simple is this: The NEA doesn't fund enough of the arts to kill it off by being axed by the GOP. The NEA is merely a symbol of faux support for commercially sound organizations who spend lots of money to cater to the upperclass white people in major cities. Maybe by letting the GOP gut the NEA and kill it outright, we might make an attempt to create something that funds the art in the country that could use a few bucks:
– the rural community-based groups that aren't blessed with an already arts-literate audience
– the tiny dance companies, theater companies, poetry foundations and storytelling start-ups that could actually make the most effective use of the least amount of money because that's what we know how to do.
– the itinerant artists with no affiliation with any major institutions of any kind.
– venues created to house the art of these little upstarts and miscreants.
Bill Eddins says it much better than I can:
"So enough already. Kill it. Stop blaming the NEA for all the problems in this country. Save your .046% of the budget. So what if we become the artistic laughing stock of the 1st world? We’re already the laughing stock in so many ways. So what if huge orchestras lose a $400K grant? The NEA has been too gun shy to fund anything remotely interesting for almost three decades now, and funding another Mostly Mozart Festival at some orchestra isn’t going to make any difference. Maybe those humongous institutions will make a little room at the trough for the artists who don’t have that high paying union contract job.
And once the NEA is gone then those rabid politicians and their slavering wannabe supporters will be faced with the real questions: do we as a people deserve affordable healthcare, and if so how are we going to pay for it? Do we as a people deserve to retire like our parents did, or will we have to work until we go to our grave just to make ends meet? Do we as a people deserve to pass on a living viable planet to our children, or will we remain mired in a fossil fuel economy and planet warming denial? And, Mr. and Mrs. Deficit Hawk—how are you going to balance your budget?"
So, I say to those in the Grand Old Party who are itching to axe the NEA, go for it. It can only make things better.