Sunday, August 9, 2009

Art Works

By Ariel

In a recent article in the New York Times the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman, discussed his vision for the agency. Insisting that “Art Works” this former mutual fund manager and theatre producer will pursue an agenda that not only invests in high quality art, but the arts economic development potential. This is a commendable approach. As the NYTimes reports, Rocco wants to invest in a program “called “Our Town,” which would provide home equity loans and rent subsidies for living and working spaces to encourage artists to move to downtown areas.

“When you bring artists into a town, it changes the character, attracts economic development, makes it more attractive to live in and renews the economics of that town,” he said. “There are ways to draw artists into the center of things that will attract other people.” The program would also help finance public art projects and performances and promote architectural preservation in downtown areas, Mr. Landesman added. “Every town has a public square or landmark buildings or places that have a special emotional significance,” he said. “The extent that art can address that pride will be great.”

It is wonderful to see an NEA director not only understand the economic development potential of the arts, but the role it can play in revitalizing neighborhoods. More impressive however is his understanding of the role of NEA funding; not simply to pay for art exhibits or programs but to provide developers a stable rent stream, one that dramatically reduces operating risk. That kind of investment not only increases the likelihood that a developer can get funding, but it also reduces the artists' risk as well. As Philadelphia arts entrepreneur Matty Hart noted in a Young Involved Philadelphia forum about North Broad street’s revitalization a year ago, “artists are entrepreneurs, small businessmen.”

However I was concerned when Mr. Landesman suggested, in contrast to “Dana Gioia, his immediate predecessor, [who] made a point of spreading endowment funds to every Congressional district… [that] he expected to focus on financing the best art, regardless of location.” I would argue that by doing so the NEA misses out on an important opportunity to do something federal agencies often have a problem doing, which is think regionally. Artists chose to live based not so much on political boundaries, but on proximity to transit and cheap rent. Moreover I suspect that, arts and their impact grow not on the basis of the quality of the art but on their proximity to other artists and more importantly, the art market.

A regional focus on arts funding, one that prioritizes access to arts markets and institutions would seed artists up and down the Philadelphia / New York corridor and help Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York. Hitting many states is actually very important for the very health of the NEA itself. Any institution that wants to grow a paltry (on the federal scale) $155 million budget needs to create as many allies as possible, in as many states as possible.

Finally, Mr. Landesman did not mention education. I am not about to digress into a discussion that is being seen more and more these days, about how the nature of our education system and larger society makes it harder and harder for young people to be creative problem solvers, that over programming of children’s lives and a focus on test scores destroys creativity. That is the focus of books, and another blog entry.

However I would argue that there is, for the health of our society, an ever greater need for arts to be creatively integrated into education, and that the NEA and the Department of Education should, like the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in their Sustainable Communities initiative, combine forces and deliver arts programming that are good for schools, students, the arts and the economic development of communities.

Be it loan forgiveness for Art teachers or apprenticeship programs, there are critical links that must be filled between areas and between regions.

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