For the past several months I have labored mightily to give birth to the Arts Council’s next five-year Strategic Plan. This is not an exercise to be taken lightly. In fact, I have come to Ever since the United States started down the road of public support for the Arts in 1964 a primary driver for determining who or what gets support has been whether it demonstrates something called “artistic excellence.”
The nature of arts professionals predisposes them to assert that “artistic excellence” should always be the prime directive for public funding agencies. That way, simply by receiving funds an arts professional (an artist or an administrator) may claim that the work he/she does is of high quality and therefore worthy of (more) support—a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.
After more than 25 years in the arts (on both sides of the funding equation), I no longer buy the artistic excellence argument where public funding is concerned. Here’s why.
Public agencies (like the Vermont Arts Council) derive most, if not all, of their grant dollars from the American taxpayer. Every taxpayer, that is. Not just the one’s who prefer Pilobolus to Jay-Z, or Shakespeare to Spielberg. We therefore, as people who work for a state arts council, have an obligation to address the variety of tastes and preferences that are out there, and lead, wherever possible, everyone to as full an understanding of and appreciation for those disciplines we refer to as “the arts” as we possibly can.
The simple fact is that not everyone likes classical art forms. Not everyone likes Jazz. Or Abstract Expressionism. Or poetry. Or Shakespeare. Or Mamet.
Isn’t our job, then, to find out the breadth of what people do like, and introduce them to creative works from other cultures and, perhaps in this process, expand their world-view, and increase their opportunities to discover for themselves what art (in whatever genre or form it takes) brings into their lives?
In this eclectic, difficult-to-compare-apples-to-oranges situation, how does “artistic excellence” fit in? In my experience it really only works when artists and administrators are “doing the absolute best they can” under the circumstances they face. Context, therefore, is crucial.
Several years ago there was a great debate between Lloyd Richards of the Yale Rep. and Robert Brustein of the A.R.T. in Cambridge on just this topic. Brustein, if I recall correctly, said that art did possess an absolute standard where excellence was concerned and that the only the works of the highest caliber should ever receive support. Richards took the approach that not all producers have access to the best talent, the best facilities, and that context needed to be taken into consideration where funding decisions were made. It all boiled down to an argument in which Richards ended up advocating for a position that seemed to say that any art is probably better than none.
I agree with Richards on this one. The phrase “artistic excellence” used as criterion for funding suggests that people agree on what that term actually means. In my experience, they don’t. Most panel meetings I’ve been involved with are more like an elaborate and unspoken negotiation among smart, experienced people with definite points of view. Consensus gets reached around what should receive funding. But often, artistic excellence, by any one person’s standard, is too subjective to measure. Think about it. How often has a good friend come up to you with a new CD and said, this is great, ya gotta check this out…and you have and you say “how interesting” because you can’t find polite enough words to express how you really feel about the work. Different strokes for different folks, right?
What really determines funding decisions in my opinion is context. Context imbues a project in North Troy with the same relative urgency that a similar project in New York or Los Angeles possesses, despite the obvious differences in resources one might assume could be brought to bear in each of those different communities. The audience in North Troy may be smaller and have less opportunity to experience diverse cultural experiences, than one in L.A. The amount they can pay an artist might be less. And they most likely don’t have the kind of access to an enormously diverse and talented pool of artists in North Troy that they do in L.A.
But our question has to be, is the community is doing everything it can to get the best artists it can afford? If so, don’t we have an obligation to do whatever we can to support it? Yes.
So let’s ask the $64 dollar question: What deserves public funding?
This is easy…arts activities that benefit the public, ALL the public. Not just the stereotypical subset who think of art as that which is created to sustain the legacy of dead, European, white males. (Yes, I’m talking stereotypes here!)
And the $63 dollar question: Who makes the fund/not fund decision?
This is even easier…a “peer-review” panel is by far the best mechanism anyone has ever devised to review a varied set of applications. The panel reviews all the material, taking context into consideration, and its recommendation gets forwarded to an authorizing body (for us, our Board of Trustees elected by our membership) and in most cases they accept the panel’s recommendation. Applicants get a fair review from knowledgeable people. The public interest is served by the oversight provided by the Board.
An application for support for a symphony project in Island Pond thus gets the same contextual review as a symphony project in Burlington. It’s only fair. It’s only right.
And, if the truth be told, if it’s a symphony project that involves the Vermont Symphony it will have a whole mess of artistic excellence thrown in for good measure, too!