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THESIS BLOG - PT.1: PROBLEM OF FUNDING THE ARTS IN THE U.S.
JANUARY 29, 2008 1:26 PM

In the spirit of the Center for Working Things Out, for the next four months I will using this blog to post progress of large research project and paper about new ways to support artistic and cultural production in the United States.

My decision to make this research public is due to its timeliness and cross-overs with projects that are happening both with InCUBATE and in Grand Rapids with the re-structuring of the DAAC and possibly new cultural centers being developed. Feedback, disagreements, article suggestions, book suggestions, etc are all warmly accepted.
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"Taking art seriously means defending the arts as a sector for action, decision taking,
and change making in our complicated world. It means putting the arts alongside politics, economics, policing, schooling, and medicine as a sector of serious significance."
1

In a post-Reagan United States, federal spending on the humanities has seen dramatic decreases, but funding for the arts has faced the most challenging obstacles. It has become apparent that the current debate over how culture in the Unites States should be supported is not adequately summarized by the overly simplistic and binary distinction of public v. private, and thus it is necessary for the administers of art and culture in America, as well as artists themselves, to seriously consider the historical precedence, theoretical parameters and real possibilities of working outside and in-between the established parameters of support in the United States.

With this research, I plan to raise the questions of how to develop, fund and support alternative infrastructure for commercial and non-commerical forms of art, culture and resistance that might be capable of fostering meaningful transformations of both self and society. Through an analysis of historical precedence and contemporary practice, I've observed models of support that address artists' needs in more effective ways by developing hybrid models as well as creating their own autonomous means of support. This research is presented here in a two-part sequence; an historical analysis of three artistic projects dealing with issues of infrastructure and an analysis of works presented in OTHER OPTIONS.

Problem of funding the arts in the United States

In the United States, the ability to fund artistic and cultural production (in particular the visual arts) is becoming increasingly more complex and problematic, especially since the "Culture Wars"2 of the early and mid-1990s halted a system that upheld and legitimized challenging contemporary art in the eyes of many individual patrons and private foundations alike. Today, the competition for funding from both public and private sources is quite fierce. Furthermore, the established public support structures can only offer minimal financial support.

For example, in 1995 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) eliminated individual artist grants, and soon after eliminated 13 of its 17 programs - which included the Visual Arts Program3. The individual artists grants were not only a source of income for living artists, but also served as a legitimizing force in contemporary artistic practices. Once the NEA was publicly criticized for sponsoring art that addressed challenging views of societal changes, particularly dealing with race and gender, institutions began to self-censor themselves, in fear of facing the same criticism brought upon NEA by Senator Jesse Helms and others4. The effects of the restructuring of the NEA in the 1990s resulted in an organization that no longer complies with the agency's mission written in 1965, "to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent." Beyond the "chilling effect," instilled by the attacks on the NEA during the 1990s, funding for the arts saw a dramatic shift - looking towards both private foundations and corporate giving.

The NEA's changed policy and the dramatic shift in public funding was warned against almost immediately. In 1995, Alberta Arthur, then director of the Rockefeller's art and humanities division, pointed out in a report to the President's Committee on Art and Humanities that, "private foundations, corporate and family foundations do their funding by guidelines and goals which are special to their interests and institutional purposes; they fund to advance their corporate ideas."4 Furthermore, in "Illusions of Private Giving," (Washington Post, 1997) Robert Storr writes, "There are no substitutes for Government's contribution to cultural affairs. The coalition of support that has helped the arts to thrive in America is dangerously out of kilter." How can actual arts administrators working within arts institutions advance new ideas and ways of working when they are limited by the inclinations of family foundations and "corporate interests"? In a 1998 article, Michael Brenson points out, "It is important to keep in mind that there is no model for private support in the United States that indicates that it, by itself, could meet the demands of this or any future artistic moment," he continues, "the market system ignored exceptional artists earlier in the century, including many African-Americans, and it still gives little support to many exceptional artists, particularly those who prefer to work outside galleries and museums." The struggle to work outside the grips of private persuasion is not limited to cultural production.

1 Arthurs, Alberta. "Taking Art Seriously." American Art 10, no. 3 (1996): 2-7.

2 Zeilger, Joseph. Arts in Crisis. (1994) p. 67-78. Culture Wars in the United States began with the attack on Andres Serrano's Piss Christ in 1989 after receiving a SECCA grant which took his work on a short tour of other SECCA recipients.

3 Federalizing the Muse via Haithman, Diane LA Times 1995

4 Brenson, Michael. "Washington's Stake in the Arts"
5 ibid.


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