Friday, March 27, 2009

On the Gay Marriage Issue

Midway through Arts Achievement Day this past week (March 25, 2009), word filtered out of the Vermont State House that Governor Douglas would veto a gay marriage bill if it landed on his desk.

Remembering back to the Civil Unions debates earlier this decade, I quickly realized that no amount of quality arts activity taking place in the State House would penetrate the wall of news that the Governor’s press conference would generate. Sure enough, in Thursday’s paper, I searched in vain for even one reference to the dozens of artists, students, advocates, and arts supporters who put on such a creative show at the State House a day earlier.

So…bowing to the inevitable, I have come to understand one key thing:

This year, one way or the other, it’s all going to be about gay marriage--or civil marriage if you prefer.

2009 is not going to be “the year that Vermont turned the economy around (or didn’t).” It won’t be “the year that the legislature finally passed (or didn’t) a motion picture incentive bill that offers a transferable tax credit to those making a film in Vermont.” It won’t be “the year that the legislature increased (or didn’t) the Arts Council’s state appropriation to a level that matches that of the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Nope. This is going to be “the year that gay marriage passed the Vermont House and was signed into law by the Governor (or wasn’t).”

I am forbidden by law to advocate for a particular position regarding pending legislation since I am the director of an independent 501(c)(3) organization that also serves as the official Vermont State Arts Agency. I am, however, allowed to offer fair and balanced opportunities to all people to educate themselves about issues of note.

Trust me, no matter how you feel about it, this is an issue of note.

Many of you have already made up your mind one way or the other on gay marriage. This post, however, is directed to those of you who have NOT made up your mind about whether you support or oppose gay marriage.

Go to the website for those advocating for traditional marriage: Take It To The People.

Then go to the website for those advocating for gay marriage rights: Freedom to Marry.

Still haven’t made up your mind? Go back and do it again, and yet again if you have to. I truly don’t care what your position ends up being. I just don’t want you or your children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren to feel any regret that you didn’t take a position and communicate it to your legislators when you had the chance.

As to where I personally stand on this issue, feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Perspective Anyone?

I don't remember too many details from Fine Arts 13, my undergraduate survey course on the History and Appreciation of Western Classical Art. But I remember vividly the Venus of Willendorf, a squat fertility figure dating back many thousands of years, and I remember a lot of classical statuary, Roman architecture, and the Moorish influence in Spain in the late Middle Ages. But mostly I remember the profound feeling of relief that came over me when, as we started in on the Italian Renaissance in the early 15th Century, artists (Brunelleschi comes to mind) started to use perspective as a principle tool for organizing three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional canvas.

Ahhhh. Perspective. Something we all need. Something we rarely enjoy.

In art, of course, perspective is often something that professional artists love to play with. I have a couple of coffee-table books and many ties in my closet with images taken from the works of M. C. Escher. They provide hours of amusement for my children and me as we trace the passage of someone walking up the underside of a staircase and emerging through a door sideways. It's a little disconcerting but also a useful tool to explore how different points of view result in different outcomes.

Of late I have been reminded how a little more training in the use of perspective might have been useful during the past couple of months on the economic front. I've already raved about the ridiculousness of the US Senate getting all crazy about $50 million of the stimulus bill going to support efforts by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). $50 million, for those of you who missed my post, is about 63/10,000ths of 1% of the total $789 billion stimulus package. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

But then I remembered something important. The Senate used to get all crazy over the NEA's $172 million budget back in the early 1990s. As a percentage of the Federal Budget, the NEA's budget was even smaller than its current portion of the stimulus package.

Fast forward a bit to this week. Perspective again becomes an important issue.

The general public is understandably outraged that AIG bosses received $160 million in retention (NOT performance) bonuses even as that sad-sack corporation was receiving $170 billion in tax-payer funds to--what's the phrase?--"cover its nut."

Now I don't have exact figures here, but it seems to me that, as justified as this outrage over bonuses is, it pales in comparison to the tens of billions of dollars that AIG is spending on, are you sitting down?, paying large international banking firms for having taken unconscionably bad investment positions in derivative swaps (or whatever they're called).

So, let's run a few numbers and get some new perspective on this AIG mess.

For ease of computation, I'm going to assume that AIG has paid out $50 billion to about a dozen banks all over the world to compensate them, dollar for dollar, the amount that they lost on derivative swappage.

What would have happened if, as frequently happens during a bankruptcy proceeding, AIG had said to these banks, "look, you're about to drive us out of business. But we're about to get some tax money. We'd like to offer you $0.90 on the dollar, since the alternative might just be for us to declare bankruptcy in which case you might get less than $0.10 on the dollar. Would $0.90 be okay?"

Assuming the banks said yes (and how could they refuse? THEY were the ones who made the bad investments to begin with!) tax payers could have saved $5 billion.

So here you have the poor schlubs who are busy "winding AIG down" getting retention bonuses (if they didn't, NO ONE would work for AIG), and getting beat up by the press, the Congress, and the American Public. Their collective bonuses represent just 3.2% of the money that could have been saved if only AIG had offered 90 cents on the dollar. But no one but me seems to be in a dither about it.

See what perspective does to you? It reveals a whole new side to a situation that makes you madder than you were before.

Perspective also reminds you that $160 million is frequently the cause of a lot of gnashing of teeth and flailing of limbs in political circles. We're in the Arts, after all, and we have that perspective down cold.

If this hasn't made you mad enough yet, then consider this.

The $50 million that caused such a furor in the Senate several weeks ago is exactly 1% of the $5 billion that might have been "saved" had AIG done the right thing.

Doesn't this make you want to pick up and head to Montpelier on Wednesday for Arts Achievement Day or to Washington DC next week for Arts Advocacy Day? At least there you'll be among people who share your perspective...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stimulus, Round 2

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is now law, and not surprisingly, the Arts Sector is "first out of the gate." Because of conservative reactions to having the Arts included at all in the Stimulus Bill, the National Endowment for the Arts is not only acting incredibly efficiently, but they have developed clear and consistent language for us to use in describing how we all are to use whatever we receive from their (63/10,000ths of 1%) share of the total $789 billion stimulus package.

Thus, funding for the Arts from ARRA, by way of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is "to help preserve jobs in the non-profit Arts field." This means that if you represent an arts organization and are eligble to apply for some of the NEA's funds, your application must address how funds will be used to retain or restore jobs.

While there may be dozens, if not hundreds of ways for your organization to tap funds from ARRA through non-arts sources (by going through your local chamber of commerce, downtown program, planning commission, select-board, state senator or house-member, or US Congressional Representative), there are only three ways to access the $50 million that was set aside for the NEA.

The first is to apply for funds directly to the NEA. To be eligible you must have received a grant from the NEA within the last four years (a grant whose number begins with an "06-" or later). According to the NEA, there are only eighteen Vermont organizations who are so eligible. The deadline for applications to NEFA is April 2; approval by the National Council on June 28th, and notification shortly thereafter.

Th second is to apply for funds from the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), the NEA's regional arts partner. As of this writing, NEFA's program and deadlines are still under development, but their application deadline will probably be no earlier than late April, and approval probably not until early to mid-June. They are still working out the specifics of their eligibility requirements, but it is sure to include organizations that already have an existing program relationship with NEFA through the New England States Touring (NEST) program, or the National Dance Project, etc. NEFA will, of course, be issuing its own guidelines and application forms soon (in concert with the other New England States), so stay tuned. Total funds available for New England Arts Organizations is expected to be between $250,000 and $300,000.

The third is to apply for support from the Vermont Arts Council, the NEA's state arts partner. Though our plans still have to receive final approval from our Trustees, we expect our "Art Jobs Program" (a title that NEFA and the New England States have decided to call our collective effort to push ARRA Funds out to the field) to have a deadline of May 8, 2009, with grant notification by July 31, 2009. Funds may be used between August 1, 2009 and August 30, 2010, with final reports required no later than September 30, 2010. Grant amounts will be $5,000 for organizations with annual budgets under $150,000 and up to $10,000 for organizations with annual budgets of $150,000 or more. Total funds available is expected to be not more than $250,000.

Although any Vermont 501(c)(3) arts organization may apply for funds, we expect to place a priority on applications that serve underserved communities, are for educational purposes, and/or retain the services of those who provide marketing and outreach for their organizations. Furthermore, we expect to put a priority on applications from organizations that regularly collaborate with other organizations and thus broaden their reach and expand their audience while at the same time sharing costs.

Here is the kicker. For those of you reading this who are eligible for all three funding streams, you may apply to all three, but you will only get a grant from one. Thus, if you apply for support from the NEA, you should also apply for support from NEFA and from the Arts Council. That way, if you don't receive NEA funding, you will not have missed either the NEFA or Arts Council deadline in the meantime. The good news is that we are working diligently to craft application forms and narrative questions that closely follow the NEA's forms. Filling out all three will not be that much more work.

There is a lot of activity at the Council right now related to the Stimulus Bill. But that's not all we're working on...

Perhaps the most urgent thing for you to take action on right now (aside from gearing up for a stimulating application to the NEA, NEFA, or the Arts Council), is to call your state legislators and urge them to become part of our soon-to-be-formed "Legislative Arts Caucus." E-mail and snail-mail invitations to an organizational breakfast at the Council next Friday (the 20th) are on their way to your legislators this week. Click here to contact your state legislators by email.

There's a lot more related to Arts Achievement Day (March 25th), the Listening Tour to which we have added one more stop (this Friday, March 13, 4 pm, at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction), and our ongoing programs and services, that I could share with you. But in the interest of time and space, I'll stop here.