Speech by Dana Gioia, Chairman,
National Endowment for the Arts
National Press Club, Washington, DC
June 30, 2003
Can the National Endowment for the Arts Matter?
Good afternoon. I thought I would begin with a poem that has nothing to do with
politics, arts funding, or the press. It is a short poem by a very neglected
poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It's called, "The Tide Rises, The Tide
The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveler hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveler to the shore.
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
If the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts had spoken to this forum
ten years ago, the topic might well have been "Should the NEA Exist?" At that
time a serious cultural and political debate existed in Washington about whether
the agency served a legitimate public function. It is my good fortune - and I
believe our nation's good fortune - that the question of the NEA's existence was
settled by Congress and confirmed by the Supreme Court in the late 1990s. The
agency was changed in several significant ways, and its funding was reduced from
its historical highpoint in 1992 of $176 million (under the first President
Bush), but its basic mission and continuing existence was assured. Of course,
some critics of the agency remain - and what public institution in a democracy
does not need critics? - but these dissenters remain outside the majority. The
NEA now exists on a firm foundation of bipartisan support.
Consequently, the question facing us today is both more interesting and more
challenging - namely can the National Endowment for the Arts still matter? Can
the NEA, that is, meaningfully regain its historical position as a strong and
positive presence in American culture? The institution was greatly damaged
during the culture wars of the previous decade. In the process it not only lost
much public funding but (and this is a more significant defeat) it also lost
public confidence - not only among average citizens but even among artists and
The question today, therefore, is whether the Arts Endowment can be restored to
its rightful place as one of the premier public agencies in the United States.
The question is interesting because it affects the culture in which we live. It
is challenging because there currently exists no consensus on the issue - only
differing perspectives, sometimes radically differing perspectives.
This afternoon I would like to offer my sense of the role that the National
Endowment for the Arts should play in American culture. I want to talk about
the agency in its broadest, general sense rather than in terms of specific
programs and policies. (I will be happy to discuss such specific issues later
in the question and answer period.) So indulge me, please, as I wax
philosophical - always a potentially embarrassing moment for a bureaucrat. I want
to begin with a wider vision because I worry that the NEA's position in the
American cultural landscape is not well understood - by either the agency's
critics or its supporters.
In order to understand how the Arts Endowment operates, it is helpful to have
some basis for comparison. By looking abroad, we can see how other nations
manage similar cultural institutions. In countries like France, Germany,
Mexico, or China, most arts funding comes from the state - either at a federal or
local level. These systems tend to be simple, fixed, and centralized, often
focused on a large Ministry of Culture. These organizations are highly
political with arts personnel usually being members of civil service or
political appointees from the ruling party. These systems provide smooth
planning for arts organizations, but they also divide the cultural world into
insiders and outsiders. The insider institutions tend to be well subsidized
with large annual grants, and the outsiders survive on the margins of the
culture, if they survive at all.
These subsidies are enormous by American terms. The last time I checked, the
government subvention for Italy's dozen major opera houses was nearly ten times
the size of the annual NEA working budget. Significantly, some of these
lavishly supported houses had not staged a single production in the previous
year because of organizational problems, labor issues, or reconstruction.
Government support does not solve all artistic and organizational problems, or
guarantee that an institution serves its local community.
In contrast to the European models, the American system of arts support is
complex, decentralized, diverse, and dynamic. It combines federal, state, and
local government support with private subvention from individuals, corporations,
and foundations as well as - and let's not forget the obvious - box office receipts.
The financial statistics differ by art form, and they change from year to year,
but in broad, general terms about one half the income arts organizations receive
is earned from box office or sales. The rest is donated - overwhelmingly from the
private sector. Only about 10% of arts support in the U.S. comes from the
government, and only about 2% from the federal government, of which slightly
less than 1% comes from the National Endowment for the Arts. (I am, of course,
excluding the enormous indirect subsidy the federal government provides by
making cultural contributions tax deductible.) The ratio of federal government
support is miniscule by European standards. And yet the American system works.
How can this be?
Like most free market or mixed market systems, American arts philanthropy is
complex precisely because it is decentralized and dynamic. Similar institutions
often have wildly differing results because of their locations, artistic talent,
cultural philosophies, and management. Likewise the dynamic nature of the
system means that one decade's high-flying leader can suffer huge reversals - just
as in corporate America. While no one relishes the ups and downs of the
cultural economy, it does have the healthy effect of keeping artists and
institutions realistically focused on their goals and communities. The best
institutions make themselves irreplaceable in their chosen fields.
This cultural dynamism also provides new groups the chance to grow. Chicago's
Steppenwolf Theater did not exist thirty years ago. Now it is one of the
nation's leading theater companies. Jazz at Lincoln Center is even more recent.
It was begun only eight years ago. Now it is the world's largest non-profit
jazz organization. (I pause here parenthetically to mention, with unabashed
self-satisfaction, that the NEA played an important role in fostering the growth
of both organizations.)
Some of these new institutions are quite amazing. Rimrock Opera of Billings,
Montana, for example, is the only opera company in the nearly 800-mile stretch
between Bozeman, Montana, and Fargo, North Dakota. Only five years old, Rimrock
now not only brings opera to its own community but also tours rural Montana and
Wyoming from Glendive and Miles City to Cody and Casper, the sparsely populated
high plains and mountain territories where the deer and the buffalo still roam,
but Verdi, Puccini, and Donizetti have never before visited. As my Italian
grandfather used to say in astonishment, "Only in America."
If the American arts system is remarkably complex, decentralized, and dynamic,
it is also uniquely effective - producing a cultural landscape of enormous size
and unmatched diversity. No one - not even the NEA - has exact statistics on
American cultural institutions because they change so rapidly, but an expert
estimate of different fields leads us to some astonishing numbers.
There are now more than 1,500 professional theaters - large and small - operating in
the U.S. There are also more than 1,200 adult symphonies plus another 600 youth
orchestras - not to mention about 120 opera companies. Meanwhile there are
approximately 5,000 writers' conferences now offered around the nation - a
statistic sure to make every writer in this room feel a little less special.
These groups are enormously diverse. Among the 1,200 symphony orchestras, some
are huge professional organizations like the Boston Symphony that offer
year-round concerts and international tours. Others are small amateur groups
like the Cotati Philharmonic (in my home county of Sonoma, California) that
gather to produce a few local performances each year. Some orchestras focus
exclusively on modern and contemporary music. Others cover the entire symphonic
repertory. Smaller groups specialize in Baroque and Renaissance music. That
diversity, size and scope is confusing to anyone trying to summarize the field,
but it reflects the vitality of American classical music.
In such a rich and dynamic artistic culture, what meaningful role can the
National Endowment for the Arts play? The NEA's 2003 budget is only
$116-and-a-half million dollars - of which less than $100 million is distributed
after agency overhead is taken into account. In other words, what role can be
played by an institution that provides slightly less than 1% of total arts
funding? This situation is further complicated by the NEA's public mandate to
support all of the arts, as well as arts education, in all fifty states - not to
mention six U.S. territories.
From a European perspective, the NEA would seem doomed to perpetual marginality.
The institution is surely too small and too stretched to make a difference. As
reasonable as that verdict sounds, I would maintain that this defeatist
perspective is wrong. It misunderstands both the nature of the U.S. arts world
and the Arts Endowment. It also ignores the remarkably productive history of
the NEA and its well-documented (if not equally well-known) record of
transforming American culture. Finally, this perspective equates NEA
effectiveness purely in terms of dollars without any recognition of how that
money is spent.
An astonishing amount of the media discussion of the NEA overlooks an obvious
fact about its past, current, and presumably future situation - namely that the
Arts Endowment cannot now and, in fact, has never operated like a centralized
ministry of culture. It has never possessed the resources to impose its will on
the American arts world. It cannot command or control the policies of
Rather than being disappointed about this realization, I consider it purely
neutral and objective. It is the proper and inevitable basis on which any
truthful vision of the NEA's future must be built. I feel, therefore,
absolutely no disappointment in the fact that the NEA cannot dictate the terms
of American culture. That putative weakness is actually one of the agency's
basic strengths. To build on the implied metaphor of "dictate," let me offer a
more democratic verbal formulation of our role in American culture. The NEA
does not dictate arts policy to the United States; instead, it enters into an
ongoing series of conversations about our culture - out of which emerge thousands
of collaborations, large and small, national, regional, and local.
The proper role of the National Endowment for the Arts is, instead, leadership,
stability, and advocacy. These objectives may seem vague and valetudinarian
compared with the centralized subsidy and control of some foreign systems, but
they are powerful and proven strategies in a diverse and changing democracy.
Leadership is the most powerful strategy, but it requires some precise
explanation, since the word leadership is a political piety solemnly uttered at
every gathering of three or more in Washington. What sort of leadership can the
Arts Endowment hope to provide in American culture?
NEA leadership begins with the illuminating fact that although the Endowment
represents less than 1% of total arts philanthropy in the U.S., it nonetheless
remains the nation's largest annual funder of the arts. This fact demonstrates
the radical decentralization - and therefore diversity - of the American system.
Just because a system is decentralized, however, doesn't mean that it lacks
leadership, trends, or direction. Consider the stock market, where a single
company's earning results can trigger a rise or fall in overall market results.
The NEA also has the enormously potent political and symbolic advantage of being
the official arts agency of the U.S. government and the only truly national arts
agency that supports and covers all of the arts in America. Consequently, it
occupies a uniquely broad, public, and influential position. Cultural trends
can begin anywhere in the U.S., but they may not be noticed for some time. But
the NEA has the ongoing advantage - and disadvantage - of being highly visible at
all times. Its politics, policies, programs, personnel, and funding are not
only matters of public record but also of public interest.
The National Endowment for the Arts has a proven ability to initiate and sustain
powerful trends. During the 1970s and 1980s under the leadership of Nancy
Hanks, Livingston Biddle, and Frank Hodsoll, the NEA slowly transformed American
cultural life - consciously creating the vast system of regional theaters, operas,
dance companies, and symphonies that America now enjoys.
During this time, certain laws of what we might call American cultural
micro-economics emerged. In study after study, the NEA learned that its grants
had a powerful multiplying effect. Every dollar that the NEA gave in grants
generated 7 to 8 times more money in terms of matching grants, further
donations, and earned revenue. A $100,000 grant, therefore, delivered $800,000
in eventual funds to an organization. The reason for this multiplying effect is
obvious: NEA funding has the power to legitimize a new organization and further
validate an existing one. Such endorsements attract further support. As the
old saying goes, "Nothing succeeds like success." In this way early NEA support
helped create major ongoing arts organizations as diverse as the American Film
Institute, the Spoleto Festival USA, and PBS Great Performances.
Stability may seem like a dull goal, but it is probably the most urgently needed
and most challenging service the Endowment currently provides. As I have
mentioned before, the very nature of the American philanthropic system makes it
highly susceptible to changes in the economy. Arts funding is dynamic - which is
a polite word for unpredictable and unstable. In good times we like the word
dynamic; it means that budgets are growing. In tough times, however, it means
that budgets are cut. And at the moment times are tough. Some have even called
the current situation in the arts a crisis.
The most serious aspect of the present downturn is not in the budgets of
individual institutions, despite the enormous challenges many of them face. The
most disturbing issue is in the state arts budgets. Here the word crisis is
unavoidable. After a decade of steady growth, state arts budgets have been cut
back significantly - with a 21% decline over the past two years and greater cuts
predicted next year. Some states have been particularly hard hit. California,
for example, will be cutting its arts budget by 75% or more. Worse yet, several
states have seriously debated eliminating arts funding altogether. Although no
state has yet done the dirty deed, the mere debate suggests that the political
and social consensus that once existed about the necessity of public support for
arts and arts education is breaking down. For many people the arts and arts
education are viewed as expendable, elitist luxuries rather than necessary
elements of a healthy democratic society.
In this critical situation, the NEA has often provided the only element of
financial stability. While American arts funding has declined over the past 2
years, NEA funding has increased. While stability in the abstract is a boring
concept, in specific cases it means musicians are not being laid off from a
symphony. It means playwrights see their new works presented as planned rather
than being cancelled, and high school drama teachers continue to have a jobs.
Given the alternatives in such cases, stability can seem positively exciting.
Advocacy is the third necessary goal for the Arts Endowment. The agency has a
civic responsibility to articulate, explain, and champion the necessity for
public support of the arts and arts education. Although there are many other
organizations involved in arts advocacy, the NEA occupies a privileged position
because it is the only national, comprehensive, established, and ongoing public
agency in the field.
While I understood the importance of advocacy as a role for the NEA before
coming to Washington, I did not then appreciate the NEA's singular role. There
is at present a genuine and urgent need to create a new public consensus for
government support of arts and arts education. In order to gain the necessary
support at the federal, state, and local levels, this new consensus must be
positive, inclusive, democratic, and non-divisive rather than confrontational,
partisan, polarizing, and elitist. We also need to embody those goals in highly
visible programs of indisputable artistic merit and enormous public reach - as in
our new Shakespeare in American Communities, the largest tour of Shakespeare in
North American history, or in the expanded NEA Jazz Masters program we will
begin next January. While it will take many organizations and millions of
individuals to build this new consensus, it cannot work without NEA leadership.
In addition to its official and national position, the Arts Endowment has
another unique strength to bring to the area of advocacy - the hard won wisdom of
having survived the culture wars as a public agency. No major cultural
institution in America was subject to more prolonged and exacting criticism - from
both right and left - than the NEA. No agency survives such a process without
gaining clarity about its mission and its methods, its constituency and its
The National Endowment for the Arts is now clearly focused on its inarguably
important mission of fostering excellence in the arts and providing access to
the arts for all Americans. It understands that it must play an active and
unapologetic role in reaching all Americans. Passivity, elitism, and timidity
will not build an institution capable of meeting the challenges currently
besetting the arts and arts education fields.
Let me conclude by stating overtly what I hope has been clearly implied by
everything I have said so far. I am firmly committed to rebuilding the budget
of the National Endowment for the Arts. We need more funds to address the
challenges and opportunities we face in both the arts and arts education. But
more money alone is not the answer. We must also confidently build a positive
and inclusive vision of our necessary role in American public life. To restore
the NEA's rightful place in American culture, we need intellectual clarity,
organizational discipline, and bold but non-divisive leadership.
When so many claim that the odds are against us, how can a poet like myself not
be utterly assured of the NEA's future success. To quote Shakespeare,
describing a famous victory against the odds, I tell my fellow artists and arts
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot.
Leadership is, after all, the art of changing the odds in one's favor. Thank
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