Monday, July 27, 2009

Missed Opportunity

In the next few weeks the Council will announce its first round of 2010 grant awards. In addition we will announce the recipients of Art Jobs grant funding--the $250,000 in stimulus money the Vermont Arts Council received for redistribution from the National Endowment for the Arts' $50 million portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

The limitations the NEA at the direction of Congress placed on the Arts Jobs program are brutal. First, its focus must be on job reinstatement or retention, so supporting organizations whose service is largely done by volunteers places them at an immediate competitive disadvantage. Second, funding is limited to organizations for whom the arts are a core part of their mission thus eliminating many significant Vermont non-arts institutions who, from time to time, engage in worthy arts activities. Third, even for a small state like Vermont, it's simply not enough money. Depending on the size of their operating budgets, organizations could apply for grants of up to $10,000. We received more than 90 applications from eligible organizations requesting nearly $730,000 in funds. This guarantees that for every one applicant who benefits two will be disappointed.

State arts councils across the country are seeing similar statistics. Those that have already informed applicants of the funding outcomes are reporting a common set of responses from those who were unsuccessful. First, there is disappointment which soon turns to fear (now what do we do?) and then to anger (how dare they tell us we are not worth of funding?)

We expect Vermont applicants to have similar responses.

There are no responses we can offer that organizations who have been denied competitive funding in the past haven't already heard. For some reason, however, not receiving ARRA funding hits a lot harder than other grant program outcomes. The question is why?

I can think of two things: the fact that unreasonable expectations were raised by virtue of the sums of money that were under discussion; and the fact that we all missed a huge opportunity--or perhaps a better way to phrase it is that a huge opportunity missed us.

Most people don't really grasp the context of $50 million out of $789 billion. But if you do the math, $50 million is 0.000064 of $789 billion--or 64/10,000ths of one percent. (For those who still are having a hard time conceiving what that means, it's the same relationship that 6.4 cents has to $100,000. As far as ARRA is concerned, the arts might as well be lost in the sofa cushions or left in a dish at the deli counter).

Even if it turns out someone got confused and thought we were meant to have $50 million per state, the combined $2.5 billion dollars allotted to the arts would still be less than 1/3rd of 1% of the $789 billion. Either way you look at it, we are talking tiny amounts of money, even though it seems like $50 million (nationally), and $250,000 (in Vermont) is a lot. It's not. And to make matters worse, it's a tiny fraction of what might have been.

I can't help but think back to the wonderful works created during the 1930s. Art that adorned walls in public buildings, or was integrated into the infrastructure of our plazas, bridges and public places; music that was commissioned to commemorate significant events; plays that were written and produced; dances and dance companies that were formed that are still in existence today--all of this and so much more was either directly or indirectly the result of a federal policy that invested significant funds into the arts through the Works Projects Administration.

What, I have to ask, would the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act have accomplished if, instead of putting $50 million into the NEA for the support of the arts nationwide, it had instead required on every public works project funded to spend a half-percent of the total budget for that project on aesthetic interpretations and improvements, and celebratory activities in locations where the public works' impact was most immediately felt?

Or, to make it even more palatable to state and local governments, what if the requirement had been only a quarter-percent, with a challenge for local communities to match it one-to-one?

Here's how the numbers would work out: at .25 percent, $1.973 billion in challenge funds would be available for improvements at the state and local level.

With the required match in hand from private and local sources, that's $3.945 billion-worth of artistic creations and aesthetic improvements over the entire course of the Stimulus funds' impact--or nearly 79 times as much funding available for the arts than under the current bill.

Americans are comfortable with the concept of a percent for art. Even a quarter-percent for art is better than nothing. And it is WAY better than 64/10,000ths of a percent for art. What a missed opportunity.

Next time (if there is a next time) let's lobby for a percent for art and leave the decisions for how to spend money on art at the community/project level. More art will be created. More artists will be employed. And communities all over Vermont, indeed all over the country, will enjoy the lasting impact of this support for generations to come.

The question I really want answered is: Is it too late to do our own WPA-like program with the $770 million of ARRA funds coming into Vermont for infrastructure improvements like roads, bridges, renewable energy, schools, and communications? A quarter percent for Art of that amount would come to nearly $1, 925,000. Think how that would improve our land- and city-scapes...


Randy687 said...

Outstanding column, Alex. Here in Rhode Island we're experiencing the same issues ($1.34 million in requests, $291,500 to award), and as I look at all the infrastructure projects starting up around our state I can only imagine the amount of good that would happen if a tiny percentage of those funds could be used for aesthetic improvement projects.

Clair said...

Alex - Off Topic but important!

Clair here -- with another article
from the NYTimes -- and this one is
very close to my heart. With our appalling broadband service in VT artists are suffering - but no one mentions that - It's difficult or impossible for us to share images with folks on dialup - no "hey, take a look at this!" They can't.

I wish you'd throw your muscle (and Jay's) around at the VTA -- they do nothing, facilitate nothing. Placeholders for an admin that could care less about getting VT into the 21st century. They just talk about it-- endlessly.

Margaret said...

Excellent thouhgts, Alex. Who can we get to pay attention to this? Does the entire legislation receive "Art Mail"? If so, how might we best do follow-up?

Vermonter said...

Alex, you make good points. But with all due respect, you sound a like a petulant child.

Yes, the restrictions Congress put on the funding are narrow. Yes, the that means there are probably tens of thousands of disappointed applicants in every single walk of life that makes up the fabric of our nation. And yes, it is terrible and scary for anyone that didn't receive ARRA money. It's not just our community that's trying to do good work while wondering how to put food on the table and stay in their homes.

Everyone reading this blog would love a percent for art program. Congress passed a bill to keep people - including artists - working. You sound ridiculous when you seriously wonder why states are restricted to that purpose only.

Is your memory so short that you've forgotten just how incredibly difficult it was to pass this bill, not to mention how many billions it fell short of Obama's request. The targeting focus on job creation/retention was the only way to get it done.

Not sure if you realize exactly how the NEA came to getting NO stimulus money at all. John Podesta, co-chair of Obama's transition team, and an NEA supporter, thought even a minute bit of funding could expose the Administration to risk as they fought tooth and nail for passage of the Stimulus bill.

You can thank Bill Ivey for getting Podesta to see the light at the very, very last minute.

The NEA received only enough money to fund about 1 in 5 ARRA applications. Of course, that doesn't include the 40% block funding to state arts agencies like yours, which will go to orgs that didn't get any other ARRA money.

This isn't a time for whining. Let's keep our eyes on the target: working (not starving) artists.