If I Ran The NEA

Hopefully, you caught the article in the 4/27/2009 edition of the Los Angeles Times by Lisa Fung that asked 30 artists, politicians, and other familiar names and faces what they would do if they ran the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Although most of the responses are worth reading, it seemed that all of the responses fell short of addressing the potential power that could be wielded by the NEA if all the pieces came together (although the responses from Tim Robbins, Jon Robin Baitz, & Frank Gehry came close on a few accounts)…

Step1 Get Capitol Hill's gears grinding in your favor.
Step 1: Get Capitol Hill's gears grinding in your favor.

Most responses focused on specific projects or concepts and only a few touched on the real power wielded by branches within the federal government but if the NEA aspires to a position of relevance among government agencies, the first order of business is finding a leader capable of putting it there and has the will to make it a top priority (paging Michael Dorf?). And that leader will need to move the NEA toward becoming a sincere political force within Washington DC capable of asserting positive influence on members of Congress, other federal departments and agencies, state arts councils, and various philanthropic foundations.

When/if that is accomplished, you can rest assured that the “art=irreverence” attitude held by some lawmakers will change and politically based “philosophical opposition” to government funded arts programs will all but disappear (funny how that happens). Consequently, if I had to answer the “If I ran the NEA…” question, it would likely focus on details surrounding the bureaucratic process needed to bring about comprehensive change.

Once accomplished, that influence should be used to facilitating the following:

  • Assist the legislative process with passing laws and regulations requiring meaningful levels of institutional transparency and accountability. An important component here is to provide financial assistance to help organizations successfully transition to the new standards.
  • Repeal existing laws that serve as the incubator for the business’ necessary, yet dirty, little secrets of creative accounting (we’ll examine that gem at a later time).
  • Provide increased flexibility with regard to using endowment funds.
  • Legitimize administrative and operational expenses as a component of federal and private grant opportunities.
  • Pass the Employee Free Choice Act and use it to craft “governance in good standing” guidelines that become boilerplate requirements for grant opportunities directed toward arts organizations that employ regular artists.
  • Create a NEA regulatory commission – with meaningful enforcement authority – tasked with the responsibility of protecting taxpayer subsidies by overseeing matters of governance and administration for organizations of all size and scope.
  • Create new classifications of nonprofit status that benefit individual artists and small budget organizations: think nonprofit LLC/LLP. After all, why should these individuals and organizations be left out of grant opportunities because they don’t have the resources (or the need) to form a 501(c)3?
  • Prohibit the practice of re-gifting government grants.

Once you have a system like this in place, implementing all of the suggestions put forward by those featured in the LA Times article (and more!) will be a political piece of cake.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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