A recent book by Robert Clark Young called One of the Guys has been condemned as pornography by The American Family Association. But the Association’s concern seems to be less the subject matter of the book itself than the fact that the author, by way of the Ohio Arts Council, received a $5,000 grant to write the novel. That the National Endowment for the Arts—the nation’s agency for state-sponsored arts patronage—provided Young with a fraction of his grant money ($385.50, or 7.7 percent) is irrelevant to many of the critics who are now exercising their right to scrutinize how public dollars are spent.
Questions about the relationship between art and the state in a democracy are often problematic, especially where money is concerned. Since 1996, the Endowment has been allotted $98 million per year, which is the same amount it received in 1977. And if this sounds like a lot of money, it might help to know that even with state and local support for the arts figured in, per capita, Americans spend $6 per year on all things arts-related. Internationally, this puts us behind countries like Australia (at $25 a head), Canada ($46), Germany ($85), and even Europe’s poorest country, Ireland, whose citizens contribute about $9 per year.
Despite the relatively low regard we have for the arts in this country, the NEA can still boast a number of successes. Thirty-five out of the 46 recipients of National Book Awards, National Book Critics Circle Awards, and Pulitzer Prizes in fiction and poetry since 1990 have been NEA grantees. The design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the original production of A Chorus Line, the Sundance Film Festival, and the Cowboy Poetry Gatherings all owe their support to the Endowment.
Just last week, the NEA received a funding increase of $7 million for the next fiscal year. Though it was the first hike since 1992, it was still opposed by the same groups that first slashed the budget by 39 percent in 1996 and then tried to eliminate the NEA altogether, on the grounds that the Endowment funds works of art and literature that are obscene.
Bill Ivey, who will be visiting Missoula Oct. 13-16 to address the subject of the government’s role in art and writing, was appointed chairman of the NEA in 1998. Trained as an ethnomusicologist and folklorist, he was the director of the Country Music Foundation in Nashville from 1971 to 1998. I spoke to him last Wednesday from his office in Washington, D.C., to discuss art, books, and money.
Missoula is known as a writerly town. And one of the most stunning recent examples of the NEA’s involvement in local literature was the Montana Festival of the Book. An $8,400 planning grant from the NEA to the Montana Commission for the Humanities provided the means for the festival, which attracted some 5,000 audience members and 123 writers. Yet, Montana still receives very little state funding. We are 55th out of 56 U.S. states and territories in per capita legislative funding for state arts organizations. So this brings up the question of how the NEA can help us. Well, I do think that the situation in Montana is particularly poignant example of a problem that the arts face in this country, which is [whether] art is valued as it should be. To me, things like the Festival of the Book have an opportunity to influence decision-makers in the political process, because events of that sort demonstrate the way in which arts activities can affect tourism, can affect the economic well-being of communities and so on. Also it can demonstrate the way in which, if different entities in a town get together and partner to create a special event, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. I think that certainly is what is facing arts professionals in Montana, as they try to make the case for the importance of an investment of taxpayers’ dollars in a state that is not wealthy, does not have a high per capita income and that maybe doesn’t have some of the obvious resources that are available for arts activity in large states and large cities.
The problem is that the money is public, but tastes are not, which is why there’s so much controversy about state-funded books and artwork. So imagine you were faced with someone who is sitting down with their checkbook, looking at all the different causes that they could spend their money on. What would you say to them? Well, there are two kinds of answers to that kind of question. Of, you know, why fund the arts? Why do the arts have enough value so that they have a moral claim on public largesse? I think that there is a range of practical answers. The arts are good for communities, the arts are good for business. There’s solid evidence that early engagement with music and dance and literature helps young people advance in school and helps young people do well in a range of subjects, not just arts-related subjects. So there’s hard, practical value to an investment that helps communities and families connect with art and art-making.
Then I think there’s perhaps a more important, but slightly more philosophical, argument which is that people have given their lives, gone to jail, sacrificed, to keep art a component of their lives, even when they were living under the most stringent material circumstances. I was reminded in a visit to Boulder a couple of weeks ago that concentration camps in Germany assembled symphony orchestras. And it wasn’t because there was a great excess of resources but because there was a great passion to have creativity and art as a component of everyday life. We as a society are learning more about the need to not only provide for the material well-being of our citizens, but also to try to partner in a way that … can help every citizen have a rewarding experience over the arc of an entire lifetime. So, there is a range of very practical reasons why investment in the arts is a good investment, and then I think there is an important philosophical argument that really links art closely with quality of life.
Even if the NEA’s budget is a drop in the bucket, federal funding is still a big issue when something controversial comes up. In the late ’80s, controversial art and the backlash it produced endangered the NEA. What has changed since then? I think a number of things have changed. … The external environment has changed, and some internal things have changed in the agency. Externally, we’re now in a very strong economy, and the argument of cutting back on the NEA in order to help balance the budget has been pretty much taken off the table. I also think that what I would term the politics of anger—which were very prevalent when conservative Republicans seized control of Congress in the mid-1990s—those politics seemed to have softened considerably. …
I also think that the Endowment itself has changed some of the ways in which we do our work. We don’t get involved in regranting—that is we don’t give money to a private party and say, ‘Here: you decide who gets an NEA grant,’ because obviously that can be a source of activity that we haven’t reviewed or evaluated. We don’t give seasonal support, so we don’t buy into everything that a theater company might produce during an entire year or an entire season. So what that has allowed us to do is make certain that if we’re going to fund something that’s challenging, we know that it has been reviewed by our panel system, and we know that we can stand behind it because it has undergone the review of citizens and professionals and therefore is deserving of both support and defense if something gets attacked. …
Cultural tourism is a hot issue these days when people talk about ways of developing Missoula. It has worked with old mining towns, but how would you go about turning a writer’s town into a cultural attraction? Well, I think that the Festival of the Book is a good example of how that can happen. Writers have fans, writers are stars; there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of people around the country who want to be writers, who want to talk to writers, who want to learn from writers and listen to writers read. And to me, the most important thing about cultural tourism is that if it is approached properly, it forces a community to look at itself in a new way, to look inward and see what are the authentic resources that are at hand. Then it asks a second question, which is how can we combine disparate resources? For example, [how can we combine] the economic strength of a chamber of commerce with the credibility and unique character of a community of writers, to create an event that will bring people to a place that will give a community a feeling of accomplishment? So to me, when I think of cultural tourism, I think of it as a way for a community to really assess their resources, build new partnerships and come out with a kind of new cultural product. To me, to have great writers living in a small geographical area is every bit as valuable as having historic buildings or old monuments or great musicians. I think that it is just another cultural asset that is there waiting to be pulled together and made into something great.