Is Necessity the Mother of Invention? Valuing the American Artist

by Karen Beach

“A great nation deserves great art.” The motto of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) charges the United States with a burden of responsibility, not only to produce masterful works of painting, drama, photography, and music, but also to maintain its own integrity. When the nation falters in its support for the individuals who produce its art and foster its cultural institutions, the “greatness,” it so confidently claims to possess, may be called into question. No organization better embodies the public and governmental onslaught the art world has faced in the past two decades than the embattled NEA. Its response to those challenges, and the reaction of the private and nonprofit sectors, may very well determine the future prospects of art and artists in America.

In 1989, a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography and the infamous “Piss Christ” of Andres Serrano—in which the artist photographed a crucifix submerged in his own urine—unleashed an attack depicting the NEA as a conduit of immorality and vulgarity. (Interestingly, Serrano was not in fact the recipient of an NEA grant. His ties to the agency were limited to a cash prize, funded only partially by the NEA, which he received from a North Carolina art group for his entry into a contest.) On the Senate floor in May of that year, Sens. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY) lashed out vehemently against the Endowment, calling its funding practices “a disgrace” and “badly, badly flawed.” Rep. Richard Armey (R-TX) and many others soon joined the livid ranks, spewing strongly worded condemnations of the agency and the art it supposedly enabled.

Their outrage that taxpayer dollars had financed such controversial artwork led to the establishment in 1990 of a decency clause in the NEA’s reauthorizing statute, forcing the agency to consider public standards of acceptable content when doling out grants. The compromise—reached among those who sought the Endowment’s immediate abolishment and those who supported its preservation—was not the end of troubled times for the NEA, though. Four artists, dubbed the “NEA Four,” filed a lawsuit later that year protesting the denial of NEA grants based on their works’ apparent violations of the decency clause. The case ascended the legal ladder, eventually landing on the docket of the Supreme Court, who ruled in 1998 against the Four.

Amidst the uproar in the early part of the decade, President Clinton appointed actress Jane Alexander as chairman of the NEA. During her four-year tenure, the agency endured its darkest hours. With the ascendance of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and the “Contract with America” Republicans, the fate of the NEA following the 1994 elections seemed all but sealed. Goals for a smaller federal government meant almost certain elimination of federal sponsorship of the arts. In her 2000 memoir, “Command Performance,” Alexander recounts the final moments of uncertainty for the Endowment while Congress debated the fiscal year 1996 budget. Despite Gingrich’s outward venom for the agency, Alexander credits him as the “midnight hour” savior of the agency, saying, “He prevailed upon the Republican right to accept a stay of execution for the endowment of two years …I said a prayer of thanks for [the persuasive abilities of] those rich old women in Georgia who loved their symphony and maybe had a museum wing named after them.”

The battle for survival, though, left the NEA with severe casualties. Its budget had been slashed by nearly forty percent—falling from $162 million to $99 million—and the agency was no longer allowed to award grants to individual artists. In addition, grants made to nonprofit organizations were required to be project-specific and matched by funds from other sources. Although later congressional support gave the NEA an indefinite stay of execution, the Endowment continues to adhere to the funding guidelines set forth in 1996, and subsequent years have restored less than $30 million to the agency’s budget.

Considering the high drama surrounding the NEA’s funding practices, the current $124.4 million budget comprises only a tiny fraction of the financial support the art community receives every year. In his preface to the 2003 NEA publication “How the United States Funds the Arts,” current NEA chairman, Dana Gioia, reveals that of the annual funding the federal government directs toward the arts—currently only two percent of total funding of the arts in America—the contribution of the NEA makes up only one percent. If its monetary contribution is indeed so little, why then, was its funding of individual artists so important? The answer to that question may lie within contemporary public opinion about people who pursue art as a career.

In 2003, the Urban Institute conducted a national study entitled “Investing in Creativity,” which focused its analysis on the existing support systems for working artists. Among its findings were two important considerations for why individual artist grants are so critical to the art community. The first concerns the societal impressions of art as work: “Society, in many instances, does not value art making as legitimate work worthy of compensation … People often seem to have no sense of what artists’ time or products are worth—and often expect them to donate both for nothing.” The second is the realization that the major cultural institutions—the museums in major U.S. cities, large venue theaters, famous ballet companies—corner the market on public attention and private donations, tourism, and even city planning for the arts. Artists working locally often remain anonymous to their communities at large.

In light of these negative, and even nonexistent, notions of contemporary working artists, the importance of grants from the NEA was that they created opportunities for the national recognition and peer validation of the artists’ work, much as poet laureates and Nobel laureates do for other fields. They raised the value of artists in the esteem of the public and legitimized their efforts in the eyes of museums and civic leaders, which opened further opportunities for them to pursue their work.

Furthermore, the financial support in itself is incredibly important for people attempting to make a living from their art. The concept of the starving artist, after all, is a cultural legend. For example, the San Francisco Foundation reports that 63 percent of artists in the Bay Area, where cost of living is very high, earn below $7,000 per year from their artwork. Not surprisingly, the Urban Institute study uncovered that most artists exhibit a common set of employment characteristics, such as working multiple jobs to make up for low earnings off their artwork, and switching jobs and employers often, but still earning less than average income for people with their education levels. Even Chairman Gioia admitted in an April 2003 U.S International Programs interview that the only reason he turned to corporate America for employment was because he “wanted to be a poet, and…didn’t want to have a career at a university.” Those who are employed full-time in art-related jobs are often teachers. Undervaluation of the arts, though, has meant that many art education jobs are tenuous at best—and the first to be eliminated when school budgets tighten. In light of such employment difficulties, for many artists, covering the costs of mere survival leaves them little time or energy to produce any art at all.

With the federal, and even state and local government neglecting individual artist, the rise of private and nonprofit sector arts support has proved invaluable. Many provide grants to artists, but a few organizations dig even deeper with their support. Creative Capital, for example, pinpoints artists who are at pivotal points in their careers and not only funds their work, but also provides artists career counseling in marketing themselves and planning future projects. The Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fosters connections between grant recipients and community projects in the mid-Atlantic states. The Bad Fruit Foundation zeroed in on health insurance for artists in Seattle and provides a comprehensive database detailing payment options and alternatives for healthcare costs. As the foundation’s vice president said in a May 2006 interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “Baby steps are necessary. In order to get something done, we have to start by doing something.”

Enabling artists, and connecting them with the broader community, may prove the very action necessary to raise the respectability of their chosen careers in the eyes of the public. Society may not be able to quantify the contributions artists make (the study “Arts and Economic Prosperity” by Americans for the Arts estimates that investment in the arts by the nonprofit sector alone generates $134 billion dollars in economic activity, due to ticket sales, and the like), but they can certainly qualify it. Social theorist Richard Florida makes compelling claims that artists (in the broadest sense of the term), who he calls the “creative class,” will be the driving force in redeveloping floundering urban areas and attracting an elite workforce. In contrast, the flight of the creative class due to lack of community or financial support will be the economic downfall of those same urban areas, and possibly the nation as a whole.

Although a great nation may indeed be worthy of great art, funding art venues instead of the artists themselves may be counterintuitive. The NEA has escaped further controversy by providing only limited grant funding to artists and focusing instead on broader art education initiatives, but it is also depriving future generations of artists the opportunity to elevate the stars among them, and preventing future generations of art audiences from grasping the energy and ideas that drove their predecessors. After all, whether they are palatial neoclassical buildings or Frank Gehry metal masterpieces, without the artwork to put in them, museums are simply empty shells.

Email Karen Beach at



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