Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Ian David Moss: Backlash to the Future

At a blog that is new to me called Createquity, the blogger, Ian David Moss, has taken a few of us to task for questioning the prevailing arts-funding orthodoxy. I know I'm a prime target. And I should add that if the economy hadn't tanked as it did, if I hadn't been downsized out of my job after seven years as I was (eight including freelancing), I might not have concluded that our arts-funding philosophy and model is fundamentally flawed and must be scrubbed or radically reconstituted. Of course, it's not that my former job was predicated on arts funding; really, it was quite the opposite, working for a commercial enterprise. But it's more that I've had time to think about where the arts are as a national force, economic and otherwise. It's more that I've spent a great deal of time thinking back on this whole decade, trying to sum up where I think the arts have been, where the arts are, and where the arts can most effectively head from here.

You know, I wasn't a blogger in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 -- the years when I did most of the reporting, as opposed to editing and managing (which came later), that I did at Back Stage. Those were in the years in which I learned the basics of the arts funding model we have in place, and, more pertinent, how fragile that ecosystem is. During those pre-9/11 days, it was all about how the dot-com bust and the recession that followed would affect funding, and how very unprepared in so many ways the nonprofit theater world was for the very real structural and organizational and aesthetic challenges that were fast being thrust upon the sector. During the post-9/11 period, it was all about the same thing, but also how very magnified those problems suddenly were. It was also about how the arts could so easily be easily politicized, about what an endless uphill battle the arts have just to convince those elected officials who are sympathetic of its importance fiscally and societally to the nation. It was, again, how precarious the whole house of cards perpetually seems to be.

So when I take our arts leaders to task for rushing with palms open toward the Obama team, or for issuing statements recommending that the NEA should be funded at $300 million annually, it's not that I don't want the arts to be funded governmentally in the United States. Good grief, Charlie Brown, if you'd spoken to me four, six, eight, ten years ago -- at any rate, long before I blogged -- I would have been manning the rafters along with those leaders, screaming at the Obama people at the top of my lungs to do what is right as part of the stimulus package and to fund, fund, fund, fund, fund. Not just my palm would be open but also my mouth and a few other orifices geared toward arts funding. But as I say, current events have had a curious effect on me. I have had to rethink my assumptions about what is, in the long run, best for the funding of the arts and humanities in the nation. I believe we're in an economic pickle deeper and potentially more devastating than anything we've seen in three generations. I believe the yo-yo effect of up-and-down arts funding at the federal and state levels, ever-buffeted by the winds of fiscal facts, political sportsmanship and gamesmanship, is fundamentally unhealthy and destabilizing to the industry as a whole. I believe that while making the fiscal-impact argument is the most important thing arts leaders can do (I know Moss disagrees), I also believe that all sectors of the economy will someday have to take responsibility for the nation's welfare as a whole, that we will have to develop new economic models and perhaps even make, God help us, some real sacrifices.

So when I read Moss' post, called The Backlash Begins, and when in particular I read the way he rails against those questioning the status quo, it amuses me. The post makes assumptions about me, who I am, what I think. Well, to be fair, one can only respond in a post to what someone else writes in a post, and it's all part of the dialogue anyway. It makes me sad, though, because only I can fully know what journey I've been on; only I can do whatever I am capable of doing in terms of articulating the arc of that journey. And I know how much it probably upsets people like, say, Teresa Eyring of TCG, when I single them out or question the way they use their power or their influence toward the industry we all hold so dear. (And let's be clear: arts leaders are as devoted to promulgating their power and influence as to defending and addressing the needs of their constituents, for their work is fundamentally political in nature.) I write what I write and say as I believe because I believe that while I may not win friends (or jobs at TCG, clearly), I can stand up for the work on stage, for the art form, that I place second to none in cherishing.

Moss begins his post by writing:

Sure enough, the ink hardly dried on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 before the predictable chorus of complaints could be heard regarding the inclusion therein of $50 million worth of support for the National Endowment for the Arts. Following a week of Republican mockery on the subject, one might have expected the bulk of these disapproving murmurs to come from the right. Yet as it turns out, in time-honored liberal tradition, the loudest critics of all are much closer to home.

Well, I actually consider it a compliment to be lumped with this group. Republicans are, um, not exactly known for deviating well from policy orthodoxy (file under Steele, Michael or Limbaugh, Rush). Yet I don't view expressions of concern or criticism as tantamount to complaining. What I have been trying to do -- and what Moss is unwilling to acknowledge -- is move the discussion past the idea of another $50 million for the NEA, or even $300 million annually for the NEA, to a larger discussion about how we can best fund the arts and humanities and whether the notion of "best" can or should be limited to direct federal and state appropriations.

And yes, I did raise the prospect that a $50 million increase -- or any attention paid to the arts by the Obama Administration -- will give the right a tool with which they can unify their own troops. Not even because the GOP hates the arts or arts funding, but because the arts are easy for them to demonize, because they have a long history of doing so (file under Flanagan, Hallie) and because haven't much else going for them right now politically.

Later, Moss writes:
But the notion that this somehow doesn't represent a victory for the arts community is one that I just don’t get. What, exactly, is the glorious alternative? Yes, the NEA represents a tiny fraction of support for the arts in this country (0.3%, to be exact). But as of a couple of weeks ago, it’s one of the only arts funding bodies in the country, and almost certainly the largest, that is actually increasing its level of support in 2009. Including the stimulus appropriation, this year's NEA payout is the highest in its history. Now, as Jacobs says, much of that new money is going to offset cuts in state arts budgets, and only partially at that. But that certainly doesn’t make it a “zero-sum game.” It's not like the states are just taking money from the arts and using it as an excuse to shuffle it around to other parts of the budget, as Jacobs seems to imply. States are hemorrhaging money right now and as a result, cuts are happening everywhere. I've said it before and I'll say it again: for the purposes of stimulus, a job saved is just as good as a job created. The NEA money will save jobs, period.

Aside from the sarcasm of a phrase like "glorious alternative" (if I had used it, I'm sure people in the theatrosphere would have rolled their eyes), the question isn't whether the $50 million NEA increase represents a victory for the arts community; of course it is. For me, the question is, again, whether we are simultaneously looking beyond that appropriation at the larger scope of arts and humanities funding. Also, Moss want to rethink the phrase "one of the only arts funding bodies in the country, and almost certainly the largest," as that excludes foundations, corporate philanthropy and private giving. (The size of their current philanthropy, of course, is rapidly set to change.)

Let me add that most of the rationale for NEA funding isn't predicated on actual dollar amounts spent as their impact in the multiples of dollars. So let's say the NEA spends a dollar -- it creates four, five, or six dollars worth of growth and fiscal activity in the arts. That's easy stuff; we all, I think, understand this. What is less reported is the way it buttresses the work of the 56 state arts agencies, which do much of the day-to-day heavy lifting of arts and humanities funding in the nation. So I do understand how $50 million translates into positive vibes for the community. However, when Moss says that I implied that "states are just taking money from the arts and using it as an excuse to shuffle it around to other parts of the budget," that's misleading. I said it was a zero-sum game based on this post, which Moss does not to link to, and which is based on reporting from various publications and quotes from, among others, Bill Ivey, the former head of the NEA.

One last point on this topic. While it may be true that "a job saved is just as good as a job created" (if the job pays the same, a point Moss leaves unaddressed), and while it may be true that the "NEA money will save jobs," the real question is one of quantification. For if it is true -- and empirically provable -- that 14,000 jobs in the arts will be "saved" out of the 200,000-plus that are being lost as a result of this recession (Moss correctly attributes these statistics to Americans for the Arts), would $50 million, then, not represent weak ROI at best? What about the other 180,000-200,000 people? That's like saving 100 people on the Titanic while 1,000 people die and calling it a miracle.

Later, Moss writes:
As for Jacobs, he seems in love with this “long-term sustainable solution to arts funding” idea, since he mentions it in just about every other post. I'd like to think of myself as an arts advocate, and so I trust he won't mind my taking umbrage at his characterization of us as “pathetic paupers” and lacking "vision." (As an aside, later on Jacobs hilariously claims to "honor those who worked so hard to make that point [that the arts make good fiscal policy]." Yeah, that language certainly makes one feel "honored.")

Sigh. Look, I'm in love with the idea that I should have a job. I'm in love with the idea that we should have no national deficit or debt. I'm in love with the idea that my American brothers and sisters in uniform should come home from a war in Iraq that was created on the basis of a big, fat lie. I'm in love with the idea that everyone might learn to be kind to everyone else, and yes, that includes me. I'm in love with the idea that the nation can unify itself around common sense, left-of-center political ideas. Now, it's not that I'm in love with a "long-term sustainable solution to arts funding" so much as, once again, wanting to move us past the idea that our current funding philosophy is the best possible one that we can devise. (If Moss feels it's perfect, that's his right.) And, by the way, I consider myself an arts advocate, too. My degree is in the theatre and I've done plenty of no-money/slow-money theater in my time, and I've had two jobs and worked overnight shifts and struggled and had successes and failures and I still love the arts and I still plan to devote my life to it, so how about we not get all proprietary over what constitutes arts advocacy, ok? And yes, I feel it's possible for me to state that people are working hard to make the case for arts funding to political powerbrokers, we can also push them to think innovatively about our current model. It isn't about being hilarious, as Moss writes, though I'm glad I offered him such mighty mirth. It's about doing what an advocate does -- pushing for something better than the status quo, for fostering dialogue even if it should prove testy and difficult.

Moss then writes:
Jacobs argues, in a column I linked to a while back, that the annual NEA appropriations should be converted into a real endowment--you know, the kind that invests in the capital markets. This idea isn't totally without merit, but there's one rather gigantic problem with it. You remember how I said earlier that the NEA is one of the only arts funders out there right now that is increasing its funding levels? That's because, in case you haven't heard, capital markets are kind of in the toilet right now. At this moment, arts organizations are being hit from all sides: their own endowments are shrinking, the assets of the foundations and individuals that support them are shrinking, earned income is going down because people have less money, and state governments are cutting back because of reduced tax revenue. In such an environment, the federal government is the only entity in the country that has the power to step in and do something to stop the bleeding -- that's the whole macroeconomic argument for the stimulus in the first place. In other words, the NEA is an important diversifying funding stream for the arts, one of the few that can be countercyclical to the general economy. Put all of its money in stocks and bonds, and you lose that crucial differentiation.

Well, Moss can win on points, but not on philosophy. When the market is down this much, I think everyone breathes a sigh of relief that we didn't let George Bush put the Social Security Trust Fund into the market. But here's the thing: If he read my post, he knows, again, that I've argued for the public/private endowment idea equally to shield the arts and humanities from being politicized, something which remains a very real danger and which will always be a very real danger so long as Congress has the ability to fund or not fund the arts and humanities at a federal level in the U.S. Moss seems to imply that simply by creating a Secretary of the Arts that we can prevent such politicization, that somehow such a position will become a part of the overall governmental infrastructure. I don't think this is naive. I think this hands more unifying force to the right at precisely the moment we have the ball and can run with it. I also think categorizing the NEA as "an important diversifying funding stream for the arts, one of the few that can be countercyclical to the general economy" is misleading. Unlike the banking system, which turned to the government as the savior of last resort, Moss would have us believe that the arts would not exist, or would be incalculably decimated, without the extra NEA funding. If things are that dire -- and they're not terrible, to be sure -- how does $50 million radically change any of that? My recommendation, noted on various posts, is that Congress should fund the NEA to the tune of quite a few billions and launch it as a public/private enterprise with a board composed of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. If we're going to have something like the NEA, could it be better considered as a kind of sacred national trust and not a "diversifying funding stream"? I don't even understand that term.

Finally -- whew! -- Moss writes:
Jacobs's charge that arts advocates lack "vision" appears to be rooted in the idea that eventually, we'll have to pay down the national deficit, and at such time those appropriations will have to be reduced. In other words, there is risk that arts funding will decrease from one year to the next. But hello! Isn't that exactly what would have happened this year if the NEA money had been in an endowment? At least this way, the government retains the flexibility to make decisions about funding levels. Anyway, freaking out about the budget deficit implications of a program as small as the NEA is disingenuous at best. The Pentagon blows through more money every two and a half hours than the NEA does in an entire year -- and that's without even counting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In any case, it's unfair to assume that the folks at Americans for the Arts and other service organizations are not thinking long-term. Changing the conversation about an issue like this takes a long time, especially when there's not an easy way to draw media attention to it. But mark my words, it is happening. The establishment of creative economy-related posts, studies, and task forces in local, regional, and state governments across the country is a testament to this. How many of them existed ten years ago?

Well, we will have to address the deficit and the debt. Period.

Second, while Moss has a point that if the NEA was like any other foundation or endowment the available monies would have dropped in this market, when he praises the government retaining "the flexibility to make decisions about funding levels," what he's really saying is that we have a president and a Congress favorably disposed to arts funding. That's all. That's not flexibility so much as pure politics. And it's not disingenuous to worry about the deficit or the debt. As noted before and as I'll note again, my worry is also about the politicization of the arts and preventing it as well as what to do in order to ameliorate the yo-yo funding effect that has consistently irked and buffeted the nonprofit theatre industry in this country for the last 25 years.

Perhaps it is "unfair to assume that the folks at Americans for the Arts and other service organizations are not thinking long-term." Sure, I'm sure they are. But if one is an arts advocate (watch Moss redefine it for me), one has the opportunity to let arts leaders know that we are looking at these issues, that we are on top of these issues, that we are debating these issues, that we are arguing -- loudly, if need be -- these issues, that we expect them dealt with and struggled through and examined and put forth in a transparent way. I'm not interested in a philosophy of "Let's let Mommy and Daddy fix it"; I'm not interested in "Let's not fight for what we believe in because the media won't pay attention." I'm interested in change. And while Moss can enjoy the support of those of the comments on his blog (including one trust-funded soul who happily put a stake in my back), I am happy to thrust and parry.

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Zev Valancy said...

Here's the essential question: I think it's pretty far beyond debate that there is not enough arts funding, and that more funding for the NEA would be a very good thing. The question, I think, is whether the most effective way to get this funding is through the current system--advocating for more NEA and other state arts council money--or through some other system. The question is: what would this system look like? And how would it be implemented, given the difficulty of changing things? I think there may be merit in the idea you are describing, but I don't quite understand 1) what it would look like, and 2) how it would be implemented. Can you lay this out, aside from any attacks on how things are currently done?

Leonard Jacobs said...

I'm not convinced that any of that is beyond debate, but I'm glad you agree that questioning the effectiveness of our current model is best. Yes, I'd be happy to try and sketch out what other models might look like. Let me work on that for you. There are a lot of them floating around.

Leonard Jacobs said...

I'm not convinced that any of that is beyond debate, but I'm glad you agree that questioning the effectiveness of our current model is best. Yes, I'd be happy to try and sketch out what other models might look like. Let me work on that for you. There are a lot of them floating around.

Zev Valancy said...

I think if anyone said to me that they think that the arts get plenty of funding and don't need any more, I might disagree pretty strenuously. Otherwise, I'm open to (rational, non-hysterical) debate on whether the problems can be solved (or at least lessened) by funding the current system better or by modifying/scrapping it.

Anonymous said...

Leonard (may I call you Leonard?),
First of all, let me say that I am glad that my little rant provoked such a long and thoughtful response from you. I have no trouble acknowledging you as an arts advocate, since the most important criteria in my mind is simply that one cares (which you clearly do). I obviously disagree with some of your views, but I do look forward to a constructive dialogue on these issues.

Before getting into some of the broader philosophical questions, I just want to correct a few things you said about my post. First, you claimed that I did not link to your post in which you called the stimulus funding a zero-sum game, but actually, I did--right up at the top under your name when I first quoted you. Also, I think you misread the sentence in which I called the NEA "one of the only arts funding bodies" and said that I was ignoring foundations, etc. I actually said that it's one of the only arts funding bodies (and almost certainly the largest) that is INCREASING its support for the arts in 2009, a point I repeated later on. I have been researching foundation arts programs nationwide in the past couple of weeks, and I can say with pretty strong confidence that this is a true statement about the NEA, even if you take out the part of its budget that gets regranted to states. (It's true that individuals provide much more support to the arts than either foundations or the government, but I was talking about institutions.)

Now, to address a few of your other points:

1. You say that $50 million for 14,000 jobs is a weak ROI. I haven't seen a ton of data on this, but about $4500 per job actually seems pretty cheap to me. We studied a case on economic development in the Baltimore area last year in which the cost for job creation was in the range of $14-30k/job depending on how you calculated it. (That figure missed the target for this particular enterprise, but even the target was still $10k/job.)

2. I don't believe that the arts would be incalcuably decimated without the extra NEA funding. The arts have a highly diversified stream of funding of which the NEA makes up only a small part. But my point, again, is that every other part of that stream is thinning out right now, while the NEA's part just fattened up. That's a good thing. (It seems we can agree on that, thankfully.)

3. Your point that the NEA's ability to fund in hard times is dependent on political winds is certainly fair. I guess my response is that AT LEAST it's dependent on something other than the economy (at least directly).

To be clear, I actually think that it would be great to have a dedicated national endowment for the arts of the kind you describe. I just don't think that it should replace the NEA, or come from NEA money. I also don't think the NEA is even all that important in the grand scheme of things (though I can understand how you might get the opposite impression from my recent writing). However, it is one of the few things we have some ability to influence, so I am all for engaging in that process.

I'll just end by saying that I don't mind you criticizing or saying that we need to do more or offering ideas about better alternatives. That's what good dialogue is all about. However, I do feel that your tone when you talk about these things can imply a certain arrogance, and that's what set me off. After reading this post, I now understand where that tone is coming from much better. But I do think we could accomplish more if we weren't so quick to question each other's motives and mental faculties.

Here's hoping for brighter days ahead.
Ian David Moss