Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Un-Endowment For The Arts

Ben Gall is out of business this weekend. The lights are off. The art that hasn’t been crated for storage hangs mute and neglected on the walls, and the grand piano near the stage is silent. Ghosts and the echoes of songs haunt the place, but no one goes in or out the door anymore.

Ben, an entrepreneur who originally came to America from Holland, was the proprietor of one of the area's most beloved establishments; a combination art gallery, café, and performing arts center called “The Arts Scene”. For a little over a year Ben went to work every day trying to sell wonderful three dimensional mixed media and metal sculptures, stunning photographs and colorful oils from all over the world. He supplemented his art business with his second passion; music. The art didn’t sell very well, but the music…the music often drew overflowing crowds.

It was the atmosphere, not just the entertainment they sought. This was a place where grownups could spend an edifying evening surrounded by the work of passionate people from all artistic genres. It was a cocoon you didn’t want to leave, and Ben could often be found after midnight discussing some South American painter’s work with a couple of folks who wandered in out of curiosity, stayed for the music, grabbed a bite to eat, and forgot the hour. That’s the kind of person Ben is, and to his credit no one heard him complain as he struggled to keep the doors open from month to month. In spite of a lack of art sales, he loved what he’d created in his little Mecca in the suburbs of West Chester, PA.

I did many shows at The Arts Scene. The room was always packed to capacity because Ben loved to promote musical events and music fans loved to hang out there. The Kennedys played there recently, as did Mark Erelli. But on any given night you’d be just as likely to encounter Al Bien and a group of friends gathered in a large circle in the center of the room trading songs and singing together. Sometimes there'd be an open mic night, or a showcase for a music school and it’s students. Al recognized the potential of The Arts Scene before anyone else and he brought the community together at many of his regular Wednesday night gatherings. Ben loved it all, and his fellow entrepreneurs at Café Menta in back made sure everyone was well fed.

We’ve lost a treasure this weekend, and the loss represents part of a much larger problem in America. Ben made the point when he spoke at his closing party on Wednesday evening. Our entire budget for the National “Endowment” (a silly word in this context) for the Arts in America is $125,000,000. Less than $.50 per capita. By contrast, in Ben’s much smaller homeland of Holland with its population of just 30 million people, the National Endowment for the Arts is more than ten times that amount. Think about that for a moment, and try to wrap your head around the concept that we’re willing to pay more for one morning’s cup of coffee than for an entire year’s worth of art grants. It’s nothing short of criminally negligent on our part.

What does it say about America that we don’t fund our public schools well enough to teach our youth about art? What does it say about us that we’ll spend billions on bridges to nowhere and almost nothing to help keep havens like The Arts Scene thriving?

It says we've lost the understanding that the imagination is essential for the good of all. Without programs that nurture the imagination, our youth fails to develop the inventiveness that drove America to it's peak productivity in the mid-twentieth century. Art is a product of the same process as utilitarian invention, and you can't lose one without damaging the other. We're creating a society gutted of it's creative spirit, which leaves little hope for the soul of our nation as a whole. Sure, we'll produce lots of experts in the paper chase, but few who excell in the pursuit of substance.


Anonymous said...

The government has no Constitutional requirement to fund the arts.
It should stick to things like builing roads, delivering the mail, and defending the borders.

Make the art you like and pay for it yourself.

chromehead said...

The government has no constitutional requirement to do many things it does, and if you're suggesting that border security and road building is where the funds are currently going, I beg to disagree.

I also wasn't suggesting that I, or any self-sustaining artist should get "funded" by the government, nor do I want the government deciding what is good for us. I'm saying that stripping our schools of art education programs because art is considered "useless" by bureaucrats, politicians and voters who don't like it is short sighted because art and innovation (invention) are byproducts of the same creative process. In a time when we need practical innovation to solve our energy crisis and other important problems, we fail to see the importance of teaching kids about Leonardo DaVinci's art and invention. DaVinci was, incidentally, subsidized by the Italian government. The Renaissance accompanied the Industrial Revolution and the two were inseparable-- one could not have happened without the other due to the amount of wealth generated by industrial innovation, which was often a byproduct of the creative work of people like DaVinci and was often government subsidized. The flaw in the NEA isn't with the concept, it's with the policy of a few people who are behind the organization and in charge of the distribution of funding. Manipulative people who are good are writing grant proposals get the money, not the worthy programs. At risk of sounding like a Socialist, which I'm not, I'll just point out that during the years that the Soviet Union subsidized its arts they produced an unparalleled quality of modern creativity, literature, ballet and symphony composition-- yes, I know they also lived under communism and someone will surely miss my point here and say I'm a sympathizer. I'm simply saying that subsidies CAN work if the programs are really designed to promote talent and not merely pay competent grant writers who urinate on a canvas. Again we have the endless debate : who arbitrates?

As for your comment "Make the art you like and pay for it yourself" that's exactly what I'm doing (funding my own CD) and there's no conflict in my mind between doing this and having a government that educates my children and grand children in a well-rounded manner.

Tim Wheeler said...

It is a sad thing. I government was once a place where talented people gave back. It's become a place of employment for people who depend on polls to choose what they have for breakfast.

Art is a scarey proposition to those who cannot create. Once it became a place for censorship (whoa to those making controversial statement using art), public funding became sterile as a catalyst. When government leans more towards behavior modification, than encouraging creativity, I can't help but long for private enterprise to fill the gap.

It would be nice to have a politically-free, morally-neutral blanket of funding available from "the people" but I'm not holding my breath.

chromehead said...

Thanks for your comment Tim. You raise two interesting subjects.

It seems that the NEA has become merely a testing ground for the censorship laws and that isn't what it was designed to do. It began with a Robert Maplethorpe photographic exhibit that focused on gay men. With that controversy the NEA discovered it's "purpose" and ruined it's chances to do the greater good. Yes, someone should fight censorship, but should every NEA exhibit be a test case?

Your other point about private and corporate sponsorship is the encouraging part of the story. Funds are up in this area, and maybe this is a partial solution. Still, the government can't take a completely hands-off attitude about art/creativity when it involves public school curriculum.

In 2004 U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige felt disturbed enough about art education's decline that he wrote a letter to school superintendents addressing their complaints.

“As I travel the country, I often hear that arts education programs are endangered because of No Child Left Behind. This message was echoed in a recent series of teacher roundtables sponsored by the Department of Education. It is both disturbing and just plain wrong. It’s disturbing not just because arts programs are being diminished or eliminated, but because NCLB is being interpreted so narrowly as to be considered the reason for these actions. The truth is that NCLB included the arts as a core academic subject because of their importance to a child’s education.”

So where are the arts programs? My own theory is that many people find the arts threatening, and school boards are quick to dump those programs first whenever it's financial crunch time because that's precisely the time those folks speak up. And God forbid we should reduce funding for the football team.

Liphonearth said...

Perhaps a more substantial percentage of the NEA's funds should be used to fund arts education in public education. Seems to me that would be money well spent, and democratically regulated by the school boards around the country.

At least then, you could hold your local school boards accountable and lie in the bed that your communities make.

It would be nice (speaking as a resident of a rust-belt state) if the local educational spending cuts would have a independent arts supplement that could not be cut or embezzled.

Coincidently, they never cut our football program in the last round of blood-letting. (Is there an NEF?) But band.. well they can practice after school. Why take valuable school hours to teach that useless stuff.

Anonymous said...

Very sorry to hear this latest development in your quest to further the arts. All your accomplishments cannot be denied and hopefully will continue in another venue. Hope springs eternal in the hearts and minds of men, here's to hoping that it will continue, albeit in another form. Best of luck with all you desire to do.

Anonymous said...

We have lost our sense of balance in America and conservative politicians and their advertising cohorts have made themselves a fortune while creating this imbalance. The federal government exists because states can't solve their own disputes with each other, so I believe an argument for states' right is an argument for anarchy. I don't mind paying taxes, I haven't ever cared for the way misguided, corrupted elected officials have chosen to use the funds for their own benefit and not for the constitutional admonition, "the common good".