February 8, 2021
It’s said that crises reveal the flaws in a system. We just had such a test with American democracy, but the crisis in the arts is one that we’ve known about for a long time and done nothing about.
The “system” that we have for funding arts in the United States is jerry-rigged in the extreme and far dicier than in most advanced democracies (excepting the one that has recently Brexited, leaving its artists marooned amid a sea of red tape.) While the Save Our Stages Act will, if properly administered, relieve many hurting organizations, we have to face the fact that if, as the Biden administration suggests, the end of the summer may be too soon to expect herd immunity to COVID-19, then the fall season that many organizations are counting on for bare survival may be at risk and, beyond that, no one knows when audiences will be willing to enter auditoria again in numbers. How much can we depend on the American private philanthropic muscle to carry the load? Moreover, why should we depend almost solely on that mechanism to deliver a public good?
The traditional answer to that question is “because we can.” American artists and organizations have been able to turn out work and keep the doors open even while the National Endowment for the Arts has become a political football, doling out its miniscule budget with a highly effective pipette. Arts organizations have become extraordinarily good at taking a seed grant and expanding it into full-program funding. The NEA, parceling out grants at an average of $23,000, has managed to stretch it’s early 2021 grants of $27,560,000 to cover 1,074 projects, 64 percent of all qualified applicants.
The grants range from $100,000 for the County of Los Angeles and also the Arts and Humanities Council of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for expanding arts education in their respective counties, down to $10,000 grants for specific projects, such as Opera San José’s planned production of Salome, which will use immersive technology and VR; or $25,000 to support Long Beach Opera’s Comet/Poppea, in which Monteverdi’s tale of lust and power alternates scenes on a rotating stage with the premiere of George Lewis’s Comet, based on a short story by Langston Hughes. Robert Moses’ Kin received $15,000 to support the creation of Thread, “a major work for dancers, storytellers, music gatherers, and visual artists about a fabled cultural mind and a mythical lost library of a destroyed African-American culture.” SFJAZZ was awarded $25,000 to fund a recording of a Jazz Collective album featuring the music of Joni Mitchell along with public engagement components.
Looking at these incredibly brilliant ideas for new artworks, it’s easy to think that American art is doing all right and that with a little extra support most of the arts community will come through the pandemic shaky but ready to charge forward. But look again: All that money is project-based. No one will get a salary out of those grants; no artists of color are going to get permanent jobs through those grants. If the system is designed around individual projects, not the health of organizations and individual artists, that leaves a huge vulnerability: Even after the pandemic is over, there’s no way to recoup or repair project-based losses.
You could look past the emergency triage, the tragedies of individual careers lost or interrupted because of the virus. We expect these organizations to survive and to call on the rich networks of artists that have informed their past work because they’ve always done that, even during a terrible recession. Yes, and by luck, talent, and entrepreneurial spirit, some artists are, in fact, doing fine right now.
But that doesn’t make the system right. Yes, musicians will accept a lower standard of living, the need to sleep on friends’ couches during the lean times, inadequate health insurance, and all the rest in order to do what they love. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that good artists are precious. In one year, we’ve seen the music industry find whole new ways to reach audiences, we’ve seen artists and organizations rethink what they do in order to include artists and communities of color, and we’ve seen many individual artists give us incredible gifts during the pandemic — a song a day, archives of musical performances, direct access to artists in their homes — that have seriously saved our collective mental health. Shrugging off the free music we’ve listened to, the books we’ve read, the art we’ve been exposed to that have leavened our isolation, is looking a gift horse in the mouth.
We can afford to support artist’s lives and their work a little bit better than we do. It wouldn’t take much more government support, just more than the petty cash we currently spare for the NEA. We don’t have to offer the expansive government support that Germany pays out to the arts. But we do have to reform a system where we expect art for free. We can pay for it, as a country, if we decide to. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that arts are not luxury items, they’re a “must have.” It’s high time to start treating them that way.