NEA RIP

Conductor Bill Eddins posted a thought provoking (or was it just provoking?) piece on 11/3/2010 simply titled “Kill the NEA.” On the surface, it might look like a ploy to draw in readers but it doesn’t’ take long to see that there’s much more beneath the surface…

In short, Eddins proposes eliminating the NEA because it has become the national “whipping post for a rabid minority in this country who fear freedom of expression and believe to their core that government should not be supporting artistic expression, let alone any subgroup of the population who tend to lean towards the political left.” Add to that, the Federal funding it receives is such an infinitesimal part of the national budget, it just isn’t worth keeping around.

The response from readers in the article’s comment thread has been equally thought provoking. Many comments point out direct examples of the positive impact that stems from the NEA’s granting activity, regardless how much Federal funding it receives.

For me, Eddins’ piece made me think back to 2009 when a piece in the Los Angeles Times published the responses from 30 artists, politicians, and other familiar names and faces when asked what they would do if they ran the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). At the time, I tossed in my $.02 and looking back with the benefit of hindsight, there’s not much I would change but when taken from Eddins’ perspective I do find myself wondering if the NEA might be able to get out from under the crosshairs of the politically motivated Culture Wars and even increase their share in the Federal budget if they were rolled up into another independent agency.

Think of it like an elaborate plan to fake your own death.

As a quick primer, the NEA is an independent agency (full list) overseen by the executive branch of the Federal Government. This means it operates outside the existing structure of executive departments (think “Cabinet Secretary”) and is in the same category as better known agencies such as the Central intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) along with lesser-knowns like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and United States Agency for International Development.

On one hand, given just how much line-item appropriation nonsense (i.e. “pork”) goes on inside Washington D.C. on a regular basis it isn’t difficult to see how overall arts funding could increase if its source is distributed inside the larger sea of red tape. Gradually, arts funding becomes one more source of directing government money toward individual representative’s districts; meaning it becomes a personal point to defend rather than an easily targeted agency to attack.

On the other hand, without an individual (or very small group of individuals) in place within the Federal system to help promote line item appropriations that contribute to a larger national arts funding strategy, the system could easily degrade into a series of continually falling spinning plates.

What do you think?

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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