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A New Commitment: To Artists, Creativity, and Freedom of Expression in the 21st Century
©2001 Archibald L. Gillies, all rights reserved
Archibald L. Gillies is the former President of The Andy Warhol Foundation. In preparing this essay he had the good advice of Pamela Clapp, Program Director of the foundation, and Ruby Lerner, President of The Creative Capital Foundation, as well as, importantly, substantive and editorial help from his assistant, Sophia Padnos.
I. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms"
In March of 1990, I became president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, having consulted for the foundation for two years before that on the development of its grants program. As it turned out, it was a remarkable time to assume the leadership of an organization whose mandate is "the advancement of the visual arts" and whose primary focus is contemporary art. 1988 was the year the city of Cincinnati brought obscenity charges against a museum director for exhibiting the sexually-themed work of Robert Mapplethorpe, a highly-regarded art photographer. Over the next seven years, attacks on artists, museums, and the National Endowment for the Arts snowballed, creating a climate of anxiety and paranoia in the art world that climaxed with the drastic cuts to the NEA's budget in 1995. These cuts, which eliminated the agency's fellowships for individuals, devastated the agency and the arts community as a whole, and made it clear that freedom of speech and artistic expression were in serious jeopardy even in the United States, a nation whose identity is premised on their sacredness.
I certainly never suspected, when I began my new job with the Andy Warhol Foundation, that my tenure there would coincide with one of the worst crises in the arts this century. When that proved to be the case, however, I did not find myself unprepared. A childhood and youth in mid-century America had given me a deep understanding of the centrality of the right to freedom of speech in our society, and I knew that one of the most important parts of my job would be to fight for it.
One of my most formative experiences was listening to President Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union Address. With the nation on the brink of war, the president warned that "at no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today." But even as his speech addressed our dire situation, he still made its centerpiece the declaration of the "four essential human freedoms, - " of which the first and most important was "freedom of speech and expression - everywhere in the world."
I was six years old when this speech was made. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" (the others were freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear) became a part of every American's political vocabulary - and the defining terms of my generation. Together with the sense of national solidarity that came out of the civilian war effort of 1941-45, the Four Freedoms became articles of faith and gave us all a strong and positive sense of our identity as Americans. All the local kids collected scrap metal, newspapers, tin foil, and milkweed pods to be used for weapons production; we rolled bandages and planted "victory gardens," and we filled our war-bond coupon books with 25-cent stamps. We experienced the satisfaction of communal involvement in a great national endeavor, even as we took pride in the goal of protecting each individual's rights and freedoms.
But this time of relatively uncomplicated patriotism came to an end with the war itself. The national crisis that followed close upon it - the Cold War with the Soviet Union - brought out a darker side of America's national identity. For while this country took a strong stand against the totalitarianism of the Russian state, and particularly against the lack of freedom of speech in Soviet society, the McCarthy era in America produced its own incursions onto Americans' civil liberties. Still, during the 1950s, the U.S. entered a long period of prosperity, during which it would ultimately shake off the fear and anxiety of the McCarthy years, and in which the world of arts and ideas flourished brilliantly. The formation of the tax-funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1965 represented America's commitment to creating, as the agencies' charter puts it, "a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent." As Michael Brenson has documented in his new book, Visionaries and Outcasts: the NEA, Congress, and the Visual Artist in America, for the next three decades the NEA would be the center and origin of a great burst of creativity from thousands of artists, arts institutions, and educational enterprises, and would become the public symbol of America's commitment to creativity and cultural progress.
By the end of the 1980s, American society had in place a strong framework for the support and nurturing of its cultural life. Our system for public arts funding was internationally admired, with the NEA as the flagship of a national structure with branches in state and local arts councils. A vast network of public and private arts institutions gave the public access to both historical and contemporary art, and a strong system of laws backed up by the First Amendment protected artists' rights to express themselves as they wished. After years of struggle, America was a country in which creativity could truly flourish, and in which even challenging art could find support and acceptance. This confident freedom and openness served its citizens well. It was a beacon to the world and made Americans accessible to new ideas and different viewpoints. American society was flexible enough to survive the turmoil of a rapidly changing international political situation and a burgeoning global economy.
But in 1989 and 1990, the situation began to change - for the world, for the country, for American artists and the art world - and, as it turned out, for me.
II. Global Changes - The NEA Debacle
On March 1, 1990, I became president of the Andy Warhol Foundation. The Cold War had just ended, suddenly and dramatically changing the nature of the relationship between the two superpowers, and with it, America's position in relation to the rest of the world. For the previous half-century, Americans had had the luxury of defining themselves against a repressive opposing culture; now, for the first time, they had to set their own terms and priorities. During the long period of Soviet-American rivalry, there had been many cultural changes. Tremendous technological developments had fuelled an explosion in global economic production; communications, transportation, and corporate organization had all been revolutionized. American citizens, without the old context of East-West political and military conflict, became more acutely aware of both the benefits and the drawbacks of what is now known as "globalization." For many, new domestic anxieties replaced old Cold War fears, especially as first manufacturing, and then white-collar jobs departed the U. S. for other countries, and divisions of wealth and income became more pronounced. It was a perfect moment for new thinking, for fresh ideas, for bold initiatives to reconfigure laws and institutions at the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. But in 1989 and 1990, instead of opening up a genuine debate about how to confront America's future in light of changing economic and political circumstances, certain politicians saw an opportunity to exploit the free-floating anxieties generated by this period of change. They saw their chance to achieve political ascendancy in scapegoating vulnerable sectors of society, and began systematic attacks on a set of groups thought to be outside the "mainstream": welfare recipients, minorities, and, perhaps most dramatically, artists.
It seemed almost as though history were repeating itself. Just as Senator Joseph McCarthy had launched witch-hunts against his political opponents during the anxious post-war period, so Senators Jesse Helms and Alphonse D'Amato, spurred on by their supporters amongst the religious right, used the post-Cold War period as an opportunity to prosecute their own extremist ideology. For them, the end of the Cold War would not be a time of national renewal, when divisions in society could begin to be healed, but an occasion to reify those divisions, and to create a sense of alienation between different sectors of society. These politicians addressed the difficulties of America's transition to a world of global economic competition, not by offering solutions, but by making the bizarre argument that artwork they did not like was somehow a threat to civil society, and that the use of tax dollars to support it was a betrayal of "ordinary Americans."
The attacks began during the twilight of the cold war years. In 1988, Dennis Barrie, a Cincinnati museum director, was arrested on obscenity charges when his institution presented an exhibition of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. Not long after, Senator D'Amato tore up images of the work of Andres Serrano on the Senate floor. These early sallies were soon followed by escalating criticism of the NEA and of others of its funded artists, attacks which culminated in the lawsuit brought by the "NEA Four," the four artists whose fellowships were rescinded after their work was declared obscene. A true "culture war" had begun.
At the Andy Warhol Foundation, we watched the continuing struggles with growing dismay. But our first direct experience of the attacks took place in 1994, when the NEA suddenly and unilaterally cancelled a joint NEA, Rockefeller Foundation, and Warhol Foundation program, the Artists' Projects Regional Initiative. This remarkably successful program had been launched in 1985 to address the problem that most of the NEA's applicants and therefore grantees hailed from only two states: New York and California. The program pooled money from the three funders and distributed it through regional arts organizations to promising artists in thirteen local areas. During the ten years over which it operated, it was a tremendous success. It brought many new artists into contact with the NEA, and APRI artists in turn brought a new geographical and ethnic diversity to the pool of NEA grantees. Their work was different also, often focusing less on the formal issues that preoccupied more traditional NEA artists, and more on issues of content - particularly social and political questions.
The APRI's artistic success was matched by its achievements in the financial realm. Enthusiasm from regional funders meant that it could expand its resources by raising additional funds from local sources like state and municipal arts councils and private donors. In its best year, nearly one-third of the budget was provided by supplemental funds from regional sources, a strong indication that a regionally based model for a national artist-funding organization holds much promise.
Despite its accomplishments, however, when the NEA came under pressure from conservative politicians in the early '90s, APRI was one of the first programs to be sacrificed. In October 1994, the NEA terminated its participation, without bothering to give advance notification to its partners Warhol and Rockefeller. NEA officials attributed the cancellation to dramatic cuts in the agency's funding and to a desire to have all grants awarded by national, not local, panels. It seemed to be no accident, however, in view of the vociferous public criticism of artists, that a program funding them would be singled out for early cancellation. The clear message was that artists would not be supported in the face of attacks upon them. Having demonized artists in the media, and thereby eroded their public support, the NEA's foes were now working on the second part of their strategy to undermine the agency: eliminating artist fellowships.
For those of us in the arts, these years, when brutal attacks on artists were everyday occurrences, were a dark time. At this critical moment in American history, we felt, artists should have been welcomed and celebrated as great contributors to our cultural strength and vitality. Instead, they were attacked and violently disparaged, cast as the enemies of American tranquillity. Especially discouraging was how few public or private leaders stood up for the artists under attack. The idea of public money for artists had gone from a basic assumption of a civilized society to a taboo topic, bound to bring down terrible punishment upon the head of anyone foolish enough to defend it.
Unfortunately, in this situation, the arts establishment did not acquit itself well. Though it saw clearly that conservatives were distorting the situation and using their distortions to gain political advantage, it also felt its own resources to be in jeopardy. Recognizing that the NEA's foes had a powerful political weapon in their inflammatory descriptions of particular artists' work, arts leaders by and large decided to save their own skins rather than stand up for principles they believed in. Instead of taking a strong stand for all the arts, political and cultural leaders who opposed the cuts to the NEA's budget decided on a defensive compromise position. Leaders would vigorously support "the arts," and the NEA, but not artists themselves. Those already under attack were effectively thrown to the dogs with a disastrous "few bad apples" argument. The NEA's administrators declared that only a few of the thousands of grants the NEA had given out were "bad" ones, and that the rest were a great contribution the NEA had made to society. They put this idea forward in homey sports metaphors - "we've got a great batting average," or bullish economic ones: "we're getting great returns, even by Wall Street standards" - but no matter how it was said, the message was clear: some of the artists the NEA had funded deserved the attacks being made by the political right. They, and their work, were indefensible by reasonable people. The Republican critics of the NEA had, it seemed, succeeded in dividing the arts community; now they had only to conquer it.
Without strong defenders, the artists' struggle for their grants was doomed to failure. The termination in the fall of 1994 of the APRI program was followed within a year by the elimination of almost all individual artist fellowships. The NEA's political foes had used artists as the wedge with which to split apart the hated NEA; they were gleeful at their rapid progress towards their larger goal of eliminating public funding for the arts in general. The NEA leadership had stood by and watched as the ground was cut away beneath its feet. By the end of 1995, it faced not only the end of individual fellowships, but the proposed shutdown of the entire agency, slated for 1997. Still, the crippled leadership believed that its sacrifice of artists had bought itself time - even if it was at the expense of an essential part of their programming and of some of their most valuable - and vulnerable - constituents.
And perhaps they were right that only in this way could the agency be saved. It did manage to survive its threatened 1997 closure. But the decision to eliminate artist fellowships came at a great cost. American artists across the country suffered tremendously, both financially and emotionally. Perhaps most injured, however, was the American spirit of fairness and solidarity. The battle of the culture wars had been abdicated without a good fight, and artists who had expressed unpopular or easily caricatured views had been wrongly penalized. Despite the fact that thirty years of NEA public support had brought a wide variety of work from a broad range of artists; despite the fact that this work had represented a small but significant source of competition for the commercial art and entertainment that had come to dominate the country's cultural life, the program was terminated without a backward glance. NEA-funded artists had come from every economic, geographic, and social background in the U.S. Doing away with the program was a disservice to all artists, but most particularly to those many who had few financial resources of their own.
What the NEA had offered was work paid for by the public and made for the public. Though its adversaries argued that the art they objected to was the product of an elite art world out of touch with the views and tastes of ordinary Americans, the artists' support by an important public institution expressed central American values: those of diversity and of freedom of speech for all Americans. When money to artists was cut off, the message was that only some voices deserved to be heard, and that the public space was not open to everyone.
In fact, in my view, the loss of public encouragement of different viewpoints and diverse artists represented by the termination of NEA grants to artists was not an isolated incident. Rather, it was continuous with the loss of community produced by the increasing fragmentation of American society. During the 1990s, ethnic and religious groups self-segregated more intensely, and sharply widening divisions in income solidified extant chasms between rich and poor. Gated communities sprang up, political discourse became more rancorous, and in general, tolerance for differing viewpoints decreased. The NEA's capitulation to exactly the kind of social and political pressures that these phenomena exemplified was not only another example of a disheartening trend, it was also the best way to ensure its continuance.
It is against this sort of divisiveness and intolerance that a strong commitment to public funding for art in all its diversity and controversy takes a stand. Tax-supported funding of all kinds of artistic expression encourages tolerance and harmony amongst different sectors of society. It disseminates unconventional viewpoints more widely, making them more familiar and thus less shocking; it also gives a governmental stamp of approval and authority to material that might otherwise seem too inflammatory. If our government flees in fear from the challenge of supporting voices that express unorthodox opinions, we run the serious risk of even greater social and cultural stratification than we have now. Because ideological hegemony tends to support whoever is currently in power, we could easily find ourselves with an affluent, private world of culture that functions entirely separately from a periphery of "outsiders" whose situations and views are ignored completely by those controlling the society's resources.
From the beginning of the Andy Warhol Foundation's program in 1989, it has been one of the primary goals of our staff and trustees to uphold the principles of freedom of expression and social support for artists. Whenever the issue of restrictions on free expression has come up in the political arena, the foundation has spoken out, joining lawsuits, advocating for artists, funding litigation, and generally supporting the artists and arts organizations caught up in the turmoil of the issue. And although after the events of 1994-5, the whole art world went into retreat for a time, we have continued to consider new ways to promote the cause of artists even without a strong NEA.
III. Creative Capital - A Positive Response
The loss of artist support from the NEA in 1995 represented not only a financial loss of some millions of dollars, but a heavy psychological blow to thousands of working artists across the United States. The demonizing tactics of the far right had worked. Established arts institutions and their leaders had been unable to withstand the vicious political attacks. For the next several years, arts forces were in disarray, as their leaders reflected on the causes and consequences of the lost battle and sought some kind of remedy for the terrible recent events. This period, from 1995 to 1998, was a grim time for arts advocates - it was hard not to feel as though society as a whole had ceased to care about artists, and had turned its back on the issues we felt were so important.
Yet this period was still infused with some of the enthusiasm and excitement of a time of social change. Like all "post-war" periods, it offered a fresh opportunity to revisit the rationales for both private and public underwriting of creativity in America, and to recast the arguments for this kind of funding in order to elicit broader and stronger financial and political support for artists.
A crucial moment for the development of my own thinking on the issue occurred at a conference of artists, educators, scientists, and entrepreneurs held at Brown University in November, 1996. Organized by the National Alliance of Artists' Communities, the conference was entitled "American Creativity at Risk," and took as its subject both the myriad forms of American creative endeavor and the threats to artistic freedom that the present social climate entailed. Speeches and discussions ranged over many types of creative innovation, and in particular focused on seeing connections between various kinds of creative expression, from scientific research to art to business innovation. In the end, the conference revealed how much society relies for its growth, health, and happiness on freedom of inquiry and the vigorous funding of free expression in all sectors of society. Prominent participants like Robin MacNeil, Mary Schmidt Campbell, and Lewis Hyde articulated what was essentially an old fashioned American defense of innovation and freedom of expression. Familiar though it was, in the bitter aftermath of the NEA debacle, it had the force of a new revelation. The conference also, bringing together as it did so many talented, passionate, and like-minded people, reminded us that we arts advocates were not in fact alone in this struggle, and that many people were eager to fight this crucial battle. The time had come, we all agreed, to stop complaining about the dreadful events of the early 1990s and to start taking positive steps towards our goal for the future.
Shortly after the conference ended, I began to meet with a small group of other arts leaders to plan a strong response. Slowly and carefully, we developed a model of a new, national enterprise that would support the work of individual artists in an innovative way - one appropriate to the changing times we live in. We all felt that a key aspect of this organization would be an acceptance of and a sensitivity to innovative approaches to making art, as well as to art that addressed the social, political, and technological issues of our time. We all agreed that during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the art world had largely ignored the tremendous changes taking place in the burgeoning fields of communications, transportation, and economic organization. In particular, we felt that the Internet, which was both the clearest example of such changes and had helped to bring many of them about, would become an important focal point for much of the significant creative work of the coming years. Any new initiative, to be successful, would have to organize itself with this new artistic and cultural context at the center of its vision for itself and for art.
After three years of conversations with philanthropists, artists, arts activists and business entrepreneurs - over a hundred different people, as I realized at the end of the process - we had a solid plan in place. We would solicit an initial sum of five million dollars from foundations and individual private donors and with it establish a small new foundation giving to individual artists. The fund would target innovative, cutting edge work, and would include a component returning some money from profitable projects to the fund.
The Creative Capital Foundation was announced on May 11, 1999, to great acclaim from the American art world. These are the three central elements in its design:
1. Creative Capital awards 50-75 grants annually for work on specific original projects in four rotating categories: media arts, visual arts, performing arts, and emerging fields. Grantees are chosen through an open call competition that is judged by panels of professionals working in the field in question. Initial grants range from $5,000 to $20,000 and are decided on the basis of artistic quality and innovation both in form and in content; those with subsequent needs may apply for limited follow-up funding.
2. Because Creative Capital believes that attention to marketing is crucial to developing a wide and appreciative audience for innovative art, the staff works with each artist to help with project development and to strategize about ways to reach out to a larger public. The goal is to maximize the work's impact both in terms of audiences and the artist's own career development.
3. Each artist who receives a Creative Capital grant is required to sign a contract under which a small portion of any profits realized from the supported project will be returned to Creative Capital. In this way, artists will help to support the institution that has helped them, and through it, their fellow artists.
The response to Creative Capital's formation from both the public and the media was so overwhelming as to convince us that we had a genuine phenomenon on our hands. Our initial concern that it was perhaps too ambitious to attempt to raise $5 million for a startup organization has been replaced with a newfound confidence. Having raised the initial funds so successfully, we have begun to plan for the organization's future. We hope to strengthen the regional component of Creative Capital, perhaps along the lines of an APRI-type model, and we are embarking on a $40,000,000 endowment campaign in order to ensure Creative Capital's permanent survival.
We feel sure we'll succeed in raising the funds. The national front-page coverage this initiative has received, along with support from commentators and the outpourings of enthusiasm from the art world, has convinced us that the political atmosphere has shifted, and that the time is ripe to take a strong stand on artist support. Creative Capital is the first positive new initiative to come out of the NEA struggles, and I couldn't be prouder to have been involved in its creation.
IV. A Renewed Commitment to Government Funding for Artists
Creative Capital, then, has proved to be a fascinating indicator of public opinion about helping artists. It has shown that people are much more enthusiastic about funding them than the political battles of the last decade would suggest. And although Creative Capital's status as a private charity has convinced some that the private sector should take over the artist support role previously played by government, I believe that support for art and artists runs much deeper in this country than such an interpretation implies. The American public understands a truth that the NEA's critics vehemently deny: that there is a strong connection between our country's productivity, innovation, and creativity, and its support of American artists. A founding principle of the United States is that free creative expression is a key value, and that restrictions on form or content in artistic expression are deleterious to both a nation's social health and its creative potential.
So although it has been argued by those on the right that the problem of arts funding could be solved by more private organizations like Creative Capital, this is the wrong conclusion to draw from the new foundation's success. As much as independent initiatives can help matters, both by contributing money and by boosting morale, they are still no substitute for important government programs. At the height of its activity, the NEA distributed approximately $10 million a year in grants to individuals; Creative Capital's entire budget, by contrast, is about $2 million a year, including overhead. A large-scale federal program can offer much larger sums (while still claiming only a minuscule percentage of the overall U.S. budget), and thus have a tremendous impact on the national scene, providing support to hundreds, not just dozens, of artists at a time. It would also have an important symbolic value, one that only a public, national agency could have, marking the importance to the nation as a whole of artists and their work. A program like this one could be a regional one, an updated and reworked version of the old Artists' Projects Regional Initiative, or it could be a centralized national fellowship program. What is important is that it is really only with a large publicly funded national project that we can achieve our goal: to produce an artistic boom that matches the explosive expansion of the rest of the economy, and brings back dividends not only for the arts and non-profit sectors, but for the commercial sector as well.
The question then is not whether or not we need such a program, but when and how to advocate for a public initiative that could replace the NEA's Individual Artist Program. For what Creative Capital's success really signifies is that we are now at a moment of cultural confidence perfectly suited to the creation of a national public initiative providing grants to artists. The exuberance of the technological boom we are currently experiencing has opened people's minds to the great benefits of creativity and experimentation, while recent economic growth means more latitude in financing such a program.
But perhaps most important, our position at the beginning of a new millennium is the perfect point of origin for an ambitious project on behalf of artists. As technology increasingly dominates our culture and our daily lives, the independent, particular, quirky and individual expressions of artists will have a greater and greater significance in our culture. Artists will help us, as they have always done, to understand our cultural moment and our place in history. They will make exciting use of technology in their work, and they will alert us to its dangers. They will help us to hear voices and ideas that transcend an ever-expanding global marketplace. And they will be, as always, in need of a supportive environment in which to do this work.
The sense of opportunity and possibility that comes with a new millennium makes this an ideal time to embark on a new and ambitious project. Having gotten one arts funding initiative off the ground, I know that it can happen, and that once it does exist, the response will be overwhelming. If we can find people to rally around this critical cause at its outset, we will be well on our way to restoring artists to the national prominence and privilege in our society that they deserve. A new federal program funding individual artists would be a great legacy for our turn-of-the-millennium generation to leave to those who come after us.
How we treat our artists, even when they tell us things we may not wish to hear, is a measure of the quality of our society, and of its confidence. We will survive and cope with our problems - and will be able to seize new opportunities as well - only if we are not afraid to foster a free flow of images and ideas from all sources, and to allow the expression of a multitude of viewpoints. The founding of Creative Capital has been an important step in the direction of the encouragement of free artistic expression; a federal artist-fellowship program to replace the canceled one would be an even more significant one. We must remember that now, at the beginning of a new millennium, is a time for bold action on this front, and a time to establish the heritage we will leave our children.