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ARTS, CULTURE, AND SOCIETY

Convenience and Process: Private versus Public Arts Funding

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Convenience and Process: Private versus Public Arts Funding

©1998 Michael Brenson, all rights reserved


Michael Brenson is a noted free-lance critic, curator and scholar. He wrote about art for The New York Times from 1982 – 1991 and a collection of his post-New York Times writings, Acts of Engagement: Writings on Art, Criticism and Institutions, 1993-2002, was published in 2004. His writings have appeared in numerous publications including Artforum, Art in America, Art Journal, American Art, Sculpture, Journal of Art, Art Criticism, and Art & Auction.


I am very glad to be part of an occasion in which artists and funders and other arts professionals have been brought together, and honored to be able to speak with you at a critical, perhaps even watershed, moment in the history of arts funding.1 We all know that the balance of power between public and private money that made the United States system of arts patronage so vital for 30 years has shifted decisively toward the private sector. The responsibility to respond to the consequences of this disequilibrium falls heavily on foundations and other members of Grantmakers in the Arts. You understand the issues. Even though most of you represent private foundations, core aspects of your funding philosophies, including an attentiveness to audiences and communities that have had little or no access to institutional power, are informed by some or many of the same principles that made public funding indispensable after the National Endowment for the Arts was founded in 1965. The awareness among many of you of the dangers of neglecting the needs and voices of individual artists reveals a concern for the field that most other private funders do not have. Today's program, which invites testimony and debate about individual artists' fellowships and about the comparative merits of private and public arts funding, acknowledges the seriousness of the problems that have been created by the decline of public arts funding and a belief that they must be confronted. If you don't confront them, who will?

We have still only begun to understand what happened to the Endowment and why, and the effects of its decline on the cultural fabric of the United States. More than the severe cutbacks in appropriations, the action that finally made this agency, and with it the public funding it symbolizes, a peripheral rather than a central player was the elimination of the Endowment's fellowships to individual artists at the end of 1995. As a result of this Congressional stricture, it has been almost impossible to anchor in the heart of this country a recognition that the vision and nerve of artists are essential to the ability of the United States, as a nation, to see and imagine, almost impossible to grasp the connection between our faith in the future and our willingness to support a multitude of strong individual voices, even or perhaps especially those suspicious of institutional and market values. By undermining the authority of the peer panel system, Congress also made it harder to believe in the possibility of a collective project. The peer panels that recommended individual artists for fellowships were proof that forums can exist in which diverse notions of quality can debate and compete, proof that structures can be invented that allow the unending struggle to form and re-form the notion of quality to be productive and humanizing rituals. Just as important, by eliminating fellowships to individual artists and in the process stigmatizing visual artists as sub-people to be feared and avoided, the Congressional action encouraged art institutions to define their identities without having to consistently engage living artists and be tested by their thoughts and acts. Eliminating fellowships to individual artists gave institutions permission to become more institutional.

Given recent global developments, public funding and the values it represented could not have escaped unchallenged. Capitalism in its raw state has been running amok. Ten years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, capitalism has no competition. Corporate rules and conventions now seem so inescapable that any operational system in the United States that is not governed by them can seem not only naive but doomed. The corporate merger of the news and entertainment industries has contributed to a control of public space that is reminiscent of media control in countries that did not call themselves democracies. Electronic technology, which now has its run of the globe, is at this point no less framed by corporate ambition, so that even the remarkable possibilities it offers for developing alternative visions and networks of communication function within the corporate body. Electronic capitalism now allows capital, as well as intimate communication, to move with such speed, and with such unimpeded access, that the lives of anyone, on any continent, including people with no interest in technology and no knowledge of its ebbs and flows, can be turned upside down overnight by the consequences of its exchanges. In a decade of deregulation and privatization in which it is easy to be intoxicated by the racy suddenness of exchanges that seem to overpower space and time, public arts funding, and the values it represents, can seem a hindrance, or an anachronism, that must be disempowered or cast aside.

My first job here is to be clear about the seriousness of the corporate occupation of this country. In order to be as concrete as possible, I have put together a series of journal-like entries. I didn't write them this way at the time, but it was easy to string them together once I realized that events of the last two months, of this new season, left me no choice but to concentrate on defining the differences in the value systems identified with private and public arts funding. I will confine myself to the last two months except for one occasion that crystallized for me the gravity of the current situation. Last summer I was asked by the United States Information Agency to lead a training session for overseas-bound foreign service officers. The subject was: Should the U.S. Government Be Promoting American Culture Abroad? I knew about cutbacks that have limited the ability of the foreign service to develop imaginative cultural relationships. I was aware of all the good Arts America had done and of the benefits of enabling American cultural figures to exhibit or perform around the world. I spoke about how essential these international connections are to the economic and political future of this country. When I finished my presentation, I was told by these officers, whom I found as a group extremely sympathetic, that I was talking about soft diplomacy. They now have to justify everything they do in terms of hard diplomacy. What this means, they explained, was that they could only justify exhibitions and other cultural programs if they could be shown to affect the arms race, for example, or, more to the point here, if they would create foreign markets. I had to leave before the afternoon session, but Anne Pasternak, the executive director of Creative Time in Manhattan and the other outside speaker, attended, and she told me that senior officials spoke to the group and made it clear that there would be no money to initiate the kinds of cultural interchanges many of us here value. The foreign service officers were told that American culture had Steven Spielberg to represent it and that nothing else was needed.

September 15. I visited the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York to take a serious look at "The Art of the Motorcycle," which I had seen only briefly, while it was being installed. In terms of attendance, it was an enormous success, as the museum's director, Thomas Krens, knew it would be; it was packed on this Tuesday. The show was cunning. With motorcycles all along the ramp and with Frank Gehry's shiny, stainless steel bands dematerializing the ramp's inner facing, it brought Frank Lloyd Wright's building, and with it the museum, into the 21st century by demonstrating that Wright's monumental organic spiral was compatible with uninterrupted glossy surfaces, high technology and speed. In its reverential display of beautifully made, sometimes stunning commodities that was far more suggestive of an automobile show than a temple of non-objective art, the exhibition all but erased that line between museum and department store that even the innumerable other art museums rabidly devoted to fashion and merchandising have refused to cross. By encouraging the general public to visit the museum and accept that it's ok to just circulate among these emblems of male independence and mobility and enjoy them, the show did not so much undermine any aura of elitism as shatter it. The wall panels, with their lists of period names and events that gave contexts for the motorcycles, were so hip in their mix of high and low culture that they could seduce almost anyone to believe his or her passion for these machines was culturally and historically meaningful. There was no encouragement to probe or question. Merchandising, technology and a particular fantasy of male defiance and potency were integrated and extolled. Critics in the mainstream press bought into it. No questions were asked about what this exhibition might reveal about the museum world at the end of this century, or about what agendas the show served.

September 23. While conducting a public interview with Maya Lin at New York University in conjunction with her exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery, I asked Lin about her need to be part of the institutional art world, which was apparent both in the sculptural installations she created for this traveling show and in her decision to be represented by the Gagosian Gallery. She made it clear that even with her two great memorials, in Washington and in Montgomery, Alabama, and all her other successful public art works, she has never been taken seriously as an artist, never even been considered first and foremost an artist. Because she has remained largely outside the market system -- objects made in studios, shown in galleries, bought by collectors and curators and written about by critics in the daily and weekly news media and in the art press -- she is still perceived as an architect, designer, or memorial-maker. Lin's frustration reflects the continuing difficulty in sustaining forums in which public art, which has inspired some of the most critical and imaginative thinking by artists about the implications of non-studio artwork and the meanings of "public" and "art" in a democracy, can be regularly debated. It is only by making studio work that functions within the market system that Lin believes she can get the respect she unquestionably deserves.

September 29: Walking through the Alexander Calder retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I heard a docent describe the work as "happy art," and everyone on her tour cooed and nodded in agreement. Calder makes people feel good -- me too. But he is also an artist who, as the critic Mark Stevens said, created a world in which evil does not exist.2 Calder is not the only modernist who dealt with evil by inventing a world in which it was unimaginable. Such a world, when it is as irresistible as Calder's, grows out of deep personal needs and distinct historical conditions. The challenge for a critic or curator is to grapple with the nature of Calder's inventive brilliance and through it to grasp the pressures that led him to make art that remains so convincing in its playfulness and goodness and so exemplary in its ability to cross generations and classes. Every great artist, even one as non-verbal as Calder, is a thinker. If there was anything in this installation that was seriously historical or that asked any questions, I didn't see it. What I did see, along with curatorial affection for his work, was the recognition that Calder was audience-friendly and that any museum could profit from his appeal as long as it marketed easily consumable delight.

October 2. The cover story in USA Today, by Maria Puente, was devoted to the Vincent van Gogh show opening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The headline was: "Tortured Artist Would Never Have Understood His Appeal." There was talk in the article about attendance and blockbusters and the familiar pseudo-populist drivel about art shows that "reach beyond connoisseurs." The National Gallery's Deborah Ziska is quoted as saying: "In terms of his popularity, van Gogh could be considered the Elvis Presley of the art world. Just like Elvis Presley's music, van Gogh's art reaches people. It's very accessible, it has instantly recognizable subject matter, they see the emotion and the colors. They're just compelled right into the paintings."3

October 4. While waiting for the 7:45 AM flight from Seattle to New York, I felt invaded, yet again, by the CNN airport network. During a two-and-a-half-hour wait in the San Francisco airport a few days earlier, I had to endure the white noise of five of its half hour cycles. I don't know which is more alarming, the transparent attempt by the entertainment-news media to manipulate people into becoming addicted to news, or the power of the entertainment-news media industry to capture, without a battle, space millions of travelers cannot escape.

Half an hour after getting on the plane, the flight attendant announced that the film would begin shortly, and she asked passengers by the windows to pull the shades. I had never before flown from Seattle to New York and was looking forward to staring dreamily at a vast region of landscape I have always considered sacred. I couldn't. The choice, if you had an aisle seat, was to read, sleep, or watch the film. In the sky, too, I felt enclosed in a box regulated by electronic and entertainment interests I neither asked for nor wanted.

October 26. Time magazine featured an article by Robert Hughes, "The New Vegas: Steve Wynn's Place and Show." Its subject was Bellagio, Steve Wynn's new $1.6 billion hotel in which blue chip modernist art is being used to "turn Las Vegas into a class act." With this hotel in mind, Wynn spent around $300 million on paintings and sculptures by Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns and Alberto Giacometti. One of his advisors is Edmund Pillsbury, former director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., where he was one of America's most imperious defenders of the uncontaminated art experience. The article clarifies Wynn's hopes for art in the capital of simulacra and glitz. "Absent a real museum," Hughes writes, "or the civic will to build and endow one, perhaps the only way to habituate fine art to Las Vegas -- and vice versa -- is to do what Wynn has done in the Bellagio: build a sort of treasure box in the core of the hotel, to which limited numbers of the public will be admitted at $10 a head, hotel guests and high rollers preferred, so that the art itself becomes a spectacle with overtones of privilege and thus matches up with the imagery of the rest of the city."4 What was most striking to me in this article by the best known art critic in the United States, the one who more than any other is held up by the art establishment as a model of perspicacity and independence, is the absence of criticism. You can be drawn to what Wynn is doing. You can feel that this connection between art, entertainment, money and spectacle has become inescapable. But are there really no questions to be asked about this connection and its effects on art? Time magazine is owned by Time Warner Inc. In this article, collusion between the news media and the entertainment industry, and between art and Hollywood, seemed nearly complete.

October 30. The Weekend section of The New York Times ran a story by Judith H. Dobrzynski with the headline, "Whitney Reorganizes and Expands Its Staff." Dobrzynski reported on the restructuring of the Whitney Museum of American Art by its new director, Maxwell L. Anderson. In Anderson's attempt to be more organized, and in his words, "more transparent, more lucid," he divided the museum into departments; he calls them "portfolios."5 Curators will now have specializations. For example, Barbara Haskell is curator of prewar art and Lisa Phillips curator of contemporary art. In fact, the Whitney's previous avoidance of these curatorial boundaries reflected a formative aspect of post-60's artmaking, resistance to traditional borders between media, but in Anderson's view this made it harder for donors to figure out whom to call to donate work. Two names were missing in the article, Elisabeth Sussman and Thelma Golden. They have been the two most visible Whitney curators in the 90's, the ones with the strongest personalities and highest profiles. They are the curators identified with the two most controversial Whitney exhibitions this decade, the 1993 Whitney Biennial and the 1994 "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art." I had serious questions about both these shows, but I'm glad the Whitney did them. Both did what the most influential museum of American art must do -- demonstrate that there is something at stake in the making of art, that art is a life-and-death matter, and that any exhibition that locates the fault lines of a society as messy and contested as ours is going to expose and thwart the desire of the establishment to master. These shows exposed the rawness of race, class and gender issues that more standardized and sanitized exhibitions gloss over. On November 4, Sussman and Golden resigned.

In a profile of Anderson in The New York Times Arts & Leisure section on Nov. 8, Deborah Solomon wrote that his money-making plans include opening a branch of Fauchon, a food store that is a symbol of upper-crust Paris.6 Fauchon will certainly outclass the affiliation with Dean & DeLuca maintained for several years by the Guggenheim. I liked the Guggenheim's Dean & DeLuca and I'm sure I'll buy food at the Whitney Fauchon, as I have at the Whitney Sarabeth's. Anderson's decisions suggest the brazen obliviousness of the new corporate museum mentality to the political consciousness that developed within the past 15 years. They also expose the assumption within the new corporate museum mentality that the ability of powerhouse institutions to convince its main constituency of its aesthetic, social and financial authority depends, now more than ever, on an aura of catering and class.

November 3: I was listening to WFAN, as I often do during lunches and breaks when I am upstate New York, and on this highly successful sports talk show station, Mike Francesa, the smartest of its talk show hosts, who prides himself on a kind of Darwinian capitalist realism, went into a tirade about the invasive marketing during the New York Jets game the day before. Even he was fed up. Do they have to put on promos after every single play? he asked. It isn't possible while watching a game to get close to the field anymore. His anger made me aware how hard it is now to find any prominent surfaces in sports arenas, surfaces whose prominence is defined by where the television camera is most comfortable, that have not been sold for advertising, or any parts of a game -- including kick-off, half-time statistics or updates of other games -- that are not brought to you by someone. In museums that promote their naming opportunities, names of donors can be almost as much of a mediating factor between viewer and art as advertising images mediating a viewer's experience of a game. Naming brands. Even though many art instititions continue to receive public monies, museums are now privately, far more than publicly, owned.

November 10. A Times article, "Blockbuster Shows and Prices to Match," was devoted to the number of blockbuster exhibitions around the country and the rising cost of tickets to get into them. One of the exhibitions cited by Judith H. Dobrzynski is "Monet in the 20th Century," which will bring more than 400,000 visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Its director, Malcolm Rogers, was quoted as saying, "We're trying to create lifelong members. People should perceive value, and the key is an exciting program." He also said, "I want to balance the museum's finances, I don't want to be a blockbuster junkie. But you need to a Monet every now and again to create excitement."7 Excitement? Are we talking about Monet or Bruce Willis?

November 14. Yesterday. In an article in the Arts & Ideas secton of the Times, Roger Cohen wrote about the human cost of the unfettered capitalism that made possible the economic surge during Clinton's presidency. He noted that the current global financial crisis "has thrown 20 million Asians back into poverty over the last year, made 40 percent of the Russian population poorer than ever, and produced growing unemployment in Brazil, a country already racked by some of the greatest disparities between rich and poor in the world." He communicated the skepticism outside the United States about the faith within the Clinton Administration that "more open markets, freer trade and larger international capital flows are necessarily good." Cohen cited Jean-Paul Fitoussi, a French economist: "A way must be found to bring the Frankenstein of deregulated global financial markets under control." He cited Elmer Altwater, a political scientist in Berlin: "We live in an increasingly unequal world, and what we have now understood is that this will continue as long as there is no political correction." Anthony Giddens, the director of the London School of Economics, told Cohen: "A very important debate has begun, sparked by the general realization that you cannot leave people unprotected before the global market."8

One word that is a key to the climate in which we are living is convenient. Everything is now expected to be easy, the way Barnes and Noble and Starbuck's and perhaps all the other super chains are easy, the way the Internet and telecommunications make access to information easy. Newspaper editors reject articles if they are not "easy reads"; any article over 2,000 words is punctuated by subheads to keep the viewer's attention from lagging. James Joyce's "Ulysses" can be mocked because it's not good beach reading. Anything that pressures anyone to struggle even a tiny bit, anything that suggests that the more effort you put into something the more you will get out of it, is now considered anti-audience. If it makes anyone deliberate for as long as 30 seconds about whether or not to consume, it can be dismissed as elitist.

Obviously we cannot dismiss this ideology of convenience. We all have too little time and too much to do. We all depend upon an array of instruments and machines that are fast and efficient. I know many of you, like me, believe in words like hospitality and access. For so many people around the world who have been deprived of even the most rudimentary services, in Eastern Europe, for example, or in Central America, convenience is synonymous with hope.

The problem arises when convenience is at the expense of process. In a short essay written in 1974, Eudora Welty responded to a remark by a member of the Mississippi Arts Commission that "we want to show that art is for everybody." Welty asked, what should be available to everybody? She answered, quality. "If when we are asked what kind of art would be 'for everybody'," she wrote, "there can be only one answer; the best." Then she went on to indicate that what she felt should be most available to everybody is "the privilege of understanding art."9 With these words, she shifted the emphasis from any possible fetishizing of "the best" to the encounter with art. What should be made available to everyone, above all, she implied, were the difficulties and rewards, frustrations and satisfactions, involved in the process of encountering art. It is the transformative potential of process that the seduction of convenience usually subverts.

In the only paper my mother, Vera Brenson, a psychotherapist, wrote, in the mid-60's, she described the change from a reacting body to a responding body -- her words -- and said that it was here, in this process of transformation, that the shift from sickness to health, and from dependence to responsibility, occurs. She knew that this transformation took time and that it often demanded courage and perseverance. When you are invited to go with your first responses, with your taste, and feel that whatever you bring to the encounter with art is sufficient in itself rather than always just a first step -- even when the pleasure in the moment is so gratifying that it does not then require any elaboration -- what is reinforced, in the end, is inevitably the expectation of immediate and self-sufficient sensation. If there is no insistence on the inherent worth of process, sensation rules, the product retains its autonomy and the illusion of easy consumption -- and often with it the dependence upon easy consumption -- is hard to resist. One of the reasons why art has been indispensable is that it has encouraged the kind of searching and struggling that can lead to lucidity and revelation. If museums stop affirming the intrinsic value of searching and struggle, they might as well be department stores or automobile dealerships.

The NEA, and with it the public funding it symbolized, did, with all its problems, argue for a different value system. In a May 1963 report to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on "The Arts and the National Government," August Heckscher defined many of the attitudes and concerns that helped shape the Endowment. He wrote about art in relation to the totality of the self and the totality of the country in the present and future. He wrote about the widespread national interest in the arts and gave as one of the explanations for it "a recognition that life is more than the acquisition of material goods."10 This belief in the necessity of supporting ways of thinking and being that balanced the American obsession with money and profit was a core NEA issue. At the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "It is important that our material prosperity liberate and not confine the creative spirit."11 He also said, "This center will have a unique opportunity to bring together worlds of poetry and power." However entangled money and art have been and will continue to be, for some of the most influential people in the arts and Government at this time, the condition of the United States depended upon a dynamic relationship between them. Whether you like Johnson or agree with his words -- and there was certainly a bitter downside to the preoccupation then with the greatness of the United States as a nation -- his words were not just rhetoric. There was a deep wariness then, in the heart of government, of an unchecked American market system, and a belief that it was the responsibility of the Government to encourage institutions that would nourish ways of thinking and imagining that questioned the ways in which institutional and market power worked.

It is worth remembering that in those days it was not just the government that thought differently about the arts. So did many businessmen. Leaders of the corporate community were willing to work with the Endowment to help it achieve its aims of supporting a broad spectrum of art and artists and enabling the fullness of the artistic experience to become available to all Americans. To a degree that still needs to be understood, however, the new money is different. On a panel on public art funding in New York City a year ago, David McKee, a highly respected Manhattan art dealer, took issue with other panelists' statements that the market should be the only funding factor in art since everything great in art this century had been made possible by private money. The rich are not the same now, McKee said. They are not interested in art but in what art can do for them. "It's not about the art," he said. "It's about their own roles."12 In the last few years, in many museums, board members are no longer required to have the artistic and cultural and even civic commitment once expected of someone on the board of a major museum. Many more people are courted by boards solely because of their money.

I don't have to remind you of the complexity of the relationship between private profit and public responsibility. The most constructive way for me to think about television's preoccupation with President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and its maddening obsessing about the nature and consequences of their relationship, without ever allowing fresh outside perspectives into the conversation, is to find in this demoralizingly repetititive and airless spectacle a conflict within the television news media between the demands of corporate power preserving itself at all cost and the demands of public service, which require that this power be questioned. Clearly the corporate side won, but the level of anxiety within the television news industry about itself was staggering, even painful. Instead of bemoaning its infantile behavior and repressive control, it would make more sense to find artists who can zero in on this anxiety and think imaginatively about it, and to find ways to do this ourselves.

I can clarify the values sustained by the Endowment's visual artists' fellowship program, as well as the importance of grants to individual artists, by citing three artists who received individual artists' fellowships. Beverly Semmes, who is best known for her hand-sewn, environmental fabric works, received two NEA fellowships, one regional ($5,000), in 1990, the other national ($20,000), in 1994. When she was interviewed about them, Semmes spoke about the value of grants for artists. "To think about those first few years being in New York," she said recently, "how do people do it? It's just so hard, and every little bit matters, and not to knock all of the benefits of the commercial art system, there are those there, too, but to be able to be free from some of those commercial constraints in those first few years when you're working seems so crucial to me, still. There's clearly more pressure on younger artists to think toward the gallery system than there was."13

Semmes revealed that her awareness of the availability of grants to individual artists, private as well as public, shaped her approach to art. "When I started," she said, "there was more thought that grants would help someone out. I looked at the career of Ann Hamilton" -- the United States representative at the next Venice Biennale -- "and it seemed like applying for grants and getting public money, or private money, was an option how to make work on a bigger scale. I certainly thought of myself in that mold. I knew that I wanted to make those large-scale pieces and think about my work in a certain way." Part of what she regrets about the diminishing number of grants to individual artists is that, in her view, many young artists believe they have no choice except to make smaller work because it has a better chance of succeeding in the gallery system.

Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel work collaboratively, mostly on civic public art projects. They received two NEA fellowships, the first in 1986, a year after they began working as a team. "It was an enormous confirmation" of their collaborative potential, Jones said. She described the $5,000 as "a huge amount of money" that enabled them to realize a project in a nonprofit space in lower Manhattan that in her words was "an effort to do something that was entirely accessible to the public." "It was really meant to be a gift," she said.

Jones is uneasy with the market. "I've always been very conflicted about any financial gain," she said. "Putting a money value on an effort or on something that was meant to be something completely other is problematic to me. I really feel as though I have an enormous responsibility to make work as a form of generosity." When asked if she felt she owed the Government anything for giving her and Andrew money (their second grant, $20,000, was in 1994), she replied, "I don't feel beholden particularly to the United States Government. I just feel responsible to society."14

I have found evidence of some commitment to public service in the words of every single artist I have interviewed who received a visual artists fellowship or who sat on an artists fellowship panel, even someone who has been as much at home within the market system as Chuck Close. Two weeks ago, in a presentation to NEA chairman Bill Ivey and the National Council on the Arts at the Endowment, Close spoke about the $7,500 he received in 1973. "Of all the awards and prizes and honorary degrees, everything else that I've gotten in my career," he said, "the NEA grant was the most important, came earliest, means the most." He then described being on a peer panel as "about the most moving experience of my life...about as moving as being on a criminal jury, a jury where I watched people become better than they were, rise to the occasion, put aside their narrow self-interests and prejudices and really do a terrific job." 15

No one would describe these peer panels as easy. Peter Plagens, the Newsweek art critic and a painter, described being on a painting panel as "absolutely mind-bogglingly arduous, and that was the price of the meritocracy." He talked about looking at 24,000 slides, 10 for each artist, projected in two banks of 5, for hours and days on end, so that, in Plagens' words, "when you walked out of there, you saw real life go black every 10 seconds."16 The system valued process, depended upon process, and fostered a belief that in the respect for communal process, a basic fairness, if not goodness, in people would emerge and an enduring feeling of justness and satisfaction was attainable.

So what does the current climate, at least as I have described it, mean for you? What can funders do that will make a difference?

In this moment of electronic capitalism, and with the new millionaires and billionaires it is creating who make money so suddenly that attention to process, and with it an appreciation of time, may have little or no meaning, it seems to me that institutions can turn their backs on any of you without blinking and make most funders feel as small or irrelevant as farmers and shop owners on Wall Street. If you felt at the beginning of the 90's that your funding could help shape a museum, I wonder if you feel that way now, when big museums are after corporate money so big that even individual supporters who were previously considered essential players have become expendable. If most funders have become almost inconsequential in their ability to affect what big museums do, however, they are definitely not inconsequential in their effect on smaller institutions, which need your help more than ever since the resources of the Endowment have declined. It may be only in smaller institutions, including community art centers and university museums, where fearless and independent individual or collective thinking can develop and the idea of resistance can be redefined.

It is essential to fund projects that are process-based, that approach process as product, that are organic and open-ended and that can therefore evolve over time, even years. A concern with process leads to a concern with means as well as ends, or with means as ends. One reason why the human price of electronic capitalism has been so high is that everything happens so instantaneously that time is pulverized, and when it is, the assumptions behind and implications of the transactions are compressed so violently that they are effectively erased. A concern with process leads to a respect for experience. If individual and institutional approaches to experience are self-conscious and imaginative enough, the encounter with art will be able to flow into and illuminate many, if not all, aspects of life. Encouraging audience participation in the complex and often wondrous process of understanding art can also lead to shared ownership, which no powerhouse museum, when push comes to shove, will allow. For anyone interested in learning about art and experience, here, too, a community arts center or a university museum may be the place to begin.

Finally, nothing is more important than investing in individuals. Find people you believe in, visual artists, certainly, but also curators, educators and writers, and stay with them for extended periods. Think of working with them to create outlets, including publications, that can help gifted people to reach others and build a new base. The full range of possibilities for supporting artists needs to be considered. Giving unrestricted money, as the Endowment did, is crucial. Strong analytical and imaginative voices, wherever they are, must be located and heard. Artists for whom their artistic practice may inform their ways of teaching, organizing or even administrating must be supported as well. You may also want to consider retaining artists and having them work with you so that you can benefit from their insights and they can benefit from yours; once again, community art centers and university museums may be more useful models than big institutions. Many foundations have been immensely generous and even visionary in their funding programs, but not always so enlightened in their willingness to practice what they preach and involve artists in their own institutional processes. The first two chairmen of the Endowment, Roger Stevens (1965-69) and Nancy Hanks (1969-77), spoke eloquently about the artist's life. They appreciated the creative process from which the art product emerged and the nature of the life in which that process was embedded. That process was more important to them than whatever might have been accomplished by the art produced by their grantees. As you develop new ways to fund artists, I hope you will pay close attention to the process of making art and the process of encountering it and find in process the keys to reinvigorating the poetic and the social imagination.

November 1998



 

1. This keynote address was delivered in Chicago on Nov. 15, 1998. The occasion was a Grantmakers in the Arts Pre-Conference, organized by Melissa Franklin, director of Pew Fellowships in the Arts, Frances Phillips, program officer at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund in San Francisco, and Rose Parisi, director of Artists' Services and Technical Assistance Programs at the Illinois Arts Council. The subject of the pre-conference was: "Preparing the Ground: Creating the Climate and Conditions in which Artists and Artmaking Can Thrive."

2. Stevens made the remark in "Alexander Calder," "American Masters" series, produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET, New York, first broadcast June 17, 1998.

3. Maria Puente, "Tortured Artist Would Never Have Understood His Appeal," USA Today, October 2-4, 1998, p. 2.

4. Robert Hughes, "The New Vegas: Steve Wynn's Place and Show," Time, October 26, 1998, pp. 77 and 80.

5. Judith H. Dobrzynski, "Whitney Reorganizes and Expands Its Staff," The New York Times, Weekend Section, October 30, 1998, p. E38.

6. "Deborah Solomon, "A Low-Key Rebel At the Whitney," The New York Times, Arts & Leisure Section, November 8, 1998, p. 48.

7. Judith H. Dobrzynski, "Blockbuster Shows and Prices to Match," The New York Times, November 10, 1998, p. E13.

8. Roger Cohen, "Redrawing the Free Market: Amid a Global Financial Crisis, Calls for Regulation Spread," The New York Times, November 14, 1998, pp. B9 and B11.

9. I found this essay in the library of the National Endowment for the Arts in a series of statements, articles, interviews and testimonies documenting the agency's early history. According to an accompanying note, the essay was called "The Feast Itself," and was "from Speech to Governor's Conference on the Arts in Jackson, Mississippi." According to the note, the essay was adapted by The New York Times on December 5, 1974.

10. August Heckscher, "The Arts and the National Government," Report to the President, May 28, 1963, Washington: The U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963, p. 1.

11. The quotes by President Johnson are taken from an unpublished six-page document called "Excerpts From Statements by President Lyndon B. Johnson on the Arts," put together by the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities in April 1966.

12. The panel, called "Public Arts Funding, Hubris and an Academic Avant-garde," was held at the Art Students League of New York on November 19, 1998.

13. Interview with Beverly Semmes, October 25, 1998.

14. Interview with Kristin Jones, October 13, 1998.

15. Chuck Close, address to the National Council on the Arts, Washington, D.C., October 30, 1998.

16. Interview with Peter Plagens, September 21, 1998.