Interconnected Fates

You may have heard that the police in Madison, WI are in sympathy with many of the union members who have gathered to protest their governor’s push to end collective bargaining rights for state workers. Over the weekend I heard an interview on NPR that mentioned both police and firefighters were turning out in support of the protest even though the governor wasn’t proposing to take away their right to collective bargaining because they figured it was only a matter of time. The fire fighter interviewed said they viewed it as an effort to divide and conquer.

Earlier this month Louise K. Stevens who writes the “Arts Market On..” blog made a similar observation regarding the need for the arts to advocate in areas outside of their immediate concern. (my emphasis)

No doubt that you have and will be getting emails and calls to action about this. But probably those calls are piecemeal, asking you for you to advocate for one or another of these line items while ignoring the whole, and that’s the problem. We a splintered sector that has never to date united around the concept of our culture, and now each splinter may be too small and too isolated from its compatriots to build a coalition to save federal support for any of the splinters.

We have a few weeks to save the half century-plus of infrastructure that modest as it may be demonstrates our public commitment to the breadth and majesty of our American culture, our shared story. If we stand splintered now, we may never get a chance to regroup. If we think that saving orchestras or contemporary dance is more important or that saving library funding and museum funding matters more than poetry, or that history and heritage and historic architecture should out trump theatre…well, how will it end?

Around the same time, Arlene Goldbard (h/t to Ian David Moss) wrote a three part series titled “Life Implicates Art” which while long, I think does the best job in summing up the challenges facing the arts and the wrong turns that have been made. Other bloggers, myself included, have touched upon these issues at times but her entries are timely in the context of all the movement nationally in Congress and state legislatures in regard to arts funding. (Also, every entry she makes has an embedded music video which is kind of a cool little hook.) Her ultimate conclusion, much like that of the firefighters in Wisconsin is that there is a high degree of interconnected interests among seemingly disparate groups.

In the first entry, she addresses the problem which is mostly that arts people think that the failure to secure funding is directly related to a failure to make a strong enough case for the arts when it is often more about politics rather than money. In some respect there is actually a weakness in the way a case for the arts is made. She notes, as I have pointed out a few times, that pretty much every industry can make a claim about the economic benefits of their activity. She notes, as most of us know, that with all the money spent on combat troops in the Mid-East, maintaining a nuclear arsenal and imprisoning a large portion of the population, the expenditures on the arts is pretty minuscule but there is not enough support for the arts nationally to make it politically difficult to make cuts there first.

In the second entry, she expounds upon the forces at work that determine politician priorities. She labels the arguments suggested by Americans for the Arts recent mail-in campaign to Congress as “so bloodless and soporific that I can’t imagine anyone actually reading all the way to the end of an op-ed based on them. Yet these have been the talking points for more than three decades. The result? The real value of the NEA budget has fallen by more than half. But hey, it’s all we’ve got, right?”

Instead she suggests a more strongly worded, speaking truth to power letter to all those who voted to support the recent extension of tax cuts to millionaires the revenue of which could cover the budgets of the NEA and NEH twice over.

Here’s an open letter along the lines I’d like to see circulating in every district represented by someone who voted for the recent extension of the Bush tax cuts:

Dear Senator/Representative:

Less than two months ago, you voted for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. They reduce tax revenues by an amount equivalent to paying out twice the combined budgets of the National Endowments for The Arts and Humanities, every single day of the year. At a time when our nation’s polarization of wealth is extreme—the top 10% own 80% of all financial assets; and the top 1% own more than the bottom 90%—I am shocked to think you care more about the wealthiest political donors than the well-being of the rest of us.

By cutting arts funding and other social goods, you are making the rest of us pay for millionaire tax cuts. It is wrong to sacrifice our children’s access to music and art classes to save millionaires from paying their fair share. It is wrong to abandon artists who have dedicated their lives to working in schools, hospitals, senior centers, and other places where their skills of imagination, beauty, and meaning lift spirits, build community, and help people find resilience. It is wrong to defund creativity at a time when we it is precisely what we need to excel in science and business, to align our spirits with hope and recovery.

It is embarrassing to be the richest nation on earth with the highest incarceration rate, prison population, and expenditure on war, and the lowest public investment in creativity. You want us to believe that you’re concerned about the economy and taxpayers, but really? Tote up the tax breaks included for millionaires: you just put $225 billion of taxpayers’ well-being into the pockets of people who already have more money than they know how to spend.

This is a shame and a scandal, and I’m going to do everything I can to let my fellow voters know about it. Restoring arts funding would be a tiny gesture to show you actually care about what the rest of us want: it’s literally the least you can do. You were elected to serve everyone, not just big donors. Here’s your chance to prove it. Don’t let America down!


John/Jane Q. Public

In the third entry, she talks about reframing the arts. As you might imagine, the burden lays upon the arts community, especially in terms of expanding the definition of art beyond what is produced by non-profit arts organizations. There is an image of the arts as elitist that people who want to cut funding have evoked that many people in the arts chafe against because we know there aren’t people in black ties sipping champagne and making obscure literary references at our performances and exhibits. Except that there are some aspects of the elitist imagery we are responsible for perpetuating.

“It’s abstract, one step removed from things people really care about: many people who happily embrace words like music or movies, who sing or draw or love to dance, will respond negatively to the idea of “the arts”—Oh no, not me, you hear them say, I’m not into the arts. Ask that same person, “Do you like to dance?” or “Do you play an instrument?” and the answer will be “Yes,” with no evident awareness of contradiction.

That’s because they pick up on the exclusionary subtext. Many people who consider themselves part of “the arts” use that label to distinguish the work of subsidized organizations from commercial cultural industries and entertainments. An enormous industry generates multibillions each year from sales of music, movie tickets, video rentals, concert tickets, and the like; and enormous numbers take pleasure from making music, taking photographs, writing poems and songs, taking part in dance competitions and poetry slams, and so on.

Yet, except when they want to summon impressive figures about the scope of the cultural economy, mainstream arts advocates don’t mention any of this. There’s an embedded snobbery that presumes the superiority of nonprofit arts organizations and the work they support, a kneejerk dismissal of the rest. This discourse often has an air of unreality: I hear advocates saying that “the arts” are in decline, yet—to pick just one example—almost everyone I encounter integrates music into daily life, almost as a kind of medicine, self-prescribing the sounds and feelings that will support them through the day.”

Goldbard feels this can be reversed, of course, if efforts are made to change practice and national cultural policy. She derives hope from the fact that people are realizing that assessing value based on numbers doesn’t work in healthcare or education and that short term savings results in a long term cost. Care and education of the whole person today prevents more expensive problems down the road. Her suggested approach to employing the intrinsic value of the arts is no less holistic and intertwines with education, healthcare and commerce to bolster all these areas.

In an homage to Goldbard’s posting style, I embed the following video. It isn’t explicitly about art and many wouldn’t consider the singing to be art because it employs autotune, but that’s sort of Goldbard’s point.

If Everyone Is Gathered In The Middle of The Road, You’re A Freak On The Sidewalk

I was catching up on some of the TED Talks I had marked on the old Google reader today when I came across a fun, short talk dissecting what makes a TED talk work vs. what elements people don’t respond as positively. The speaker, Sebastian Wernicke, even created a web site with a TED talk generator utilizing the best (and worst) words according to his statistical analysis.

It’s all tongue-in-cheek, but it also sort of falls into the category of “its funny, because its true” which in some respects isn’t so funny. A similar analysis is used to determine television and radio programming. The algorithms uses to suggest songs you may like based on songs you already like isn’t much different from the analysis many corporate owned radio stations use to determine whether to add a song to their play list. Even in a niche area like Hawaiian music, corporate has to evaluate and approve what gets played locally. I know because I tried.

I know it is not news that people gravitate toward the middle of the road stuff that challenges and excites just enough to keep people engaged but goes no further. Anyone who finds a new format to present this in gets copied. It strikes me that this may be part of the problem the arts face. The definition of the middle of the road has become concentrated around such a narrow point by analysis and replication that areas of the arts which used to be considered more mainstream suddenly find themselves of fringe interest.

I’ll grant that the arts suffer from a certain lack of nimbleness and we are seeing the result of that. I wonder though if the view of the arts as an interest of a fringe population is what has helped to lead to calls for defunding time and time again or for Rocco Landesman’s claim that there are too many arts organizations. There aren’t calls to evaluate organizational effectiveness and allocation of resources. The assumption seems to be that the nation is ill-served by the arts as a whole. Borders bookstores announced they were closing down stores last week. Starbucks did a similar thing a year or so ago and closed many of its stores. People may have said there were too many Starbucks around, but no has said we needed to have fewer coffee shops or book stores. The respective companies evaluated which areas were under performing and made a decision.

I will concede that governments aren’t currently in the business of evaluating arts organizations and so don’t have the data the head office a private sector company would have so they can create the criteria for cutting funding. I am certain most of us would be a little nervous about what sort of criteria might be set. Our return on investment in some areas is likely stronger in some areas than in others and it would be easy for someone who wanted to defund us to focus on our deficiencies. Or worse yet, compare us to the big impressive organization over yonder.

What I have noticed though is that no one who wants to reduce or remove funding has really made it an issue of quality. No one has even decided to call the arts on all the things arts leaders claim their disciplines provide at budget hearings. Which makes me think it isn’t a matter of the arts doing valuable work, it is matter of the arts no longer really being a mainstream concern. There are certainly other factors and it isn’t really a revelation that the arts aren’t as mainstream as they once were. It is a little depressing to recognize that no one is out there saying if we want their money, we need to do a better job at providing a benefit. Andrew Taylor noted this in an entry last week.

In terms of what the answer might be. It could lay in the direction of the random acts of culture program I wrote about the Knight Foundation sponsoring. I followed a trackback to that entry from The Waltzing Porcupine blog and discovered a link to an entry on the Asking Audiences blog that reinforced the idea that flash performances may be part of a strategy for arts organizations to become more nimble and find increased relevancy in audience’s lives. (emphasis from the original)

“What struck me most forcefully, watching videos of Random Acts of dance, poetry, classical music, and opera from around the country, was that the bystanders (well, they start as bystanders but soon become an audience) are obviously experiencing a range of real, pleasurable human emotions. That’s something you can’t usually see on the faces of arts audiences sitting in concert halls and auditoriums.

Why is that? Not just because they’re not expecting an arts attack and are thrown off balance, although clearly that’s part of the fun. I think it has to do with the fact that, in these Random Acts, the performers and the audience are in every sense on the same level. The performers are dressed like you and me. They’re in our midst, not on a stage. We’re together in this crazy business (opera, life).


But the Random Acts program is more ambitious and, from the looks of it, more dramatically subversive. It almost makes you think the arts have been in hiding all these years, playing it safe in their own cultural caves instead of venturing out to where life is really going on. Hence the feeling of celebration surrounding these performances: the arts are coming out of the closet, redefining themselves as things regular people do, in regular places — no longer “hallowed” experiences set apart from daily life.


But there is a subtle chipping-away effect. You can see the bystanders’ identities being challenged by their own reactions to the performance: “I’m not a dance (or classical music, or poetry, or opera) person. But wait a second. This is fun!”…

Info You Can Use: More Foreign Artist Withholding

The issue of the 30% with holding the United States levies against foreign artists doesn’t seem to be going away. Last year I wrote about my victory, with some help from the IRS, in educating my disbursement office about reading tax treaties with other countries. I thought between this new found knowledge and preparing the paperwork well in advance of a performance, most of the problems would be behind us.

Boy was I wrong.

When I returned from the Christmas holidays about two weeks ago, I had a letter from the IRS specifically directing us to withhold 30% from the payment we were making to an artist and then send them proof of having done so. You would think from such a letter that the performers were absconding from the country with huge amounts of cash, but we really aren’t relatively paying them all that much. Especially when you consider their agent gets a cut too. I don’t want to imply that the laws should be applied inconsistently, but it seems like the IRS is either focusing undue attention on small potatoes or they have shifted resources to scrutinize all foreigner artists’ activities. (I still say they would get more bang for their buck going after everyone sheltering money overseas.)

This story has a happy ending, at least for my organization. We received a letter from the IRS today saying the group has entered into an agreement with the IRS and we were specifically directed by name not to withhold the money. Still, the whole incident shows that the IRS is apparently stepping up their activities in this area and you need to be more aware of the laws surrounding withholdings. Artists from Abroad is a good place to start.

Speaking Art to Power

Tonight we hosted a retirement party for one of the art professors on our stage. We were sort of the victims of past success. About 7-8 years ago, a professor had her retirement party on stage and it fired the imagination of the art professor. But this woman has had a 40 year history with the school which is no insignificant thing so when she asked us to host it back in August, we found a date we were dark for Nutcracker and penciled her in.

There were a lot of other art professors and some of her former students getting up to talk about how she impacted their lives and what the experience of taking her class meant to them. One woman had sustained an injury that prevented her from continuing her work in healthcare and she went back to school to study art and ended up winning some awards thanks to what she learned.

And the best part of it all was that the governor was sitting there the whole time. The retiring professor (who is not at all retiring personality-wise) was a long time friend and supporter of the governor since before either of them moved here. She supported him when he started running for office nearly 45 years ago and stood behind him on his first run at governor this past year. I knew he was coming, but I expected him to be in and off to another event. Instead, he stayed the entire night, got up, spoke about the value of the artist in society, signed his first proclamation as governor commending her and sat right back down.

The night unfolded essentially just as I had it should in my post yesterday when I advised talking about the value of the arts over and over again in front of decision makers or get them to talk about you. I have never had something I suggested in a post manifest itself so quickly and without so little effort on my part. Though it will likely still be hard going from this point forward, I will take the gift.