A Creative Legacy
A History of The National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists' Fellowship Program 1966-1995
2001, 256 pages with 293 illustrations, $49.50. Harry Abrams, Inc. Published in association with the NEA.
I am a compulsive obituary reader. I am fascinated by life stories, unrecognized accomplishments, legacies, and remnants of hope. Reading the handful of pages of text in this book, I had the sense that I was reading about an extraordinary life. There was history, there were testimonials, and where there might have been a list of descendants, there were works by nearly 300 artists funded by the NEA during the existence of the Visual Artists' Fellowship Program — a small sampling given the scope of the program.
While the book is largely a collection of photographs documenting the evolution of the program and art at the end of the twentieth century, there are two essays that illuminate the history and philosophy of the Visual Artists' Fellowship Program.
Every life begins with birth, and Jennifer Dowley quotes the government code that brought the NEA into being: “While no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate of encouraging freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.” During the life of the program, the NEA invested in artists' careers, often at a critical point in their maturation, allowing many to create work that they would not have been able to make if they had to cater to the demands of the commercial art market.
Her essay goes on to address the more practical issues associated with the program. She details its history and describes the peer review selection and policy-making processes. The information provided could be useful to any foundation that is considering establishing a program to fund individuals.
Nancy Princenthal's essay gives a broader history of late twentieth century art as reflected by the Visual Artists' Fellowships. The thirty-year span of the fellowship program gives us a veritable who's who of contemporary art. She notes that the fellowships were not based on “popular acclaim,” but on the merit of the artists' work. In so many cases, the panelists identified artists who were creating work not just for the moment, but whose work had the potential to play a critical role in the evolution of visual art. The first group of fellows included Mark di Suvero, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, and Ed Ruscha. At that time, artists were nominated, but in 1973 the program changed and established an open call for submissions.
Princenthal chronicles the program by decade, citing the changes in demographics and media. Not surprisingly, the 1970s marked the emergence of women. Of the era's fellowships, Princenthal notes, “Some work funded at this time is still controversial enough to remain a weapon in the fight against government involvement in the arts; some has become so well and widely appreciated that it is, by contrast, thought too commercial to have warranted public funding.”
By the early 1980s, the program had expanded in terms of submissions and budget. In 1981, the NEA received more than 10,000 applications, and in 1982, a record 337 artists received $3.5 million in funding.
A Creative Legacy provides essential information on the fellowship program from its inception to its end. Readers will find a list of every artist who ever received a fellowship, both national and regional; the selection panels for each year and discipline; the number of applicants in each discipline for each year; the policy/overview panelists who helped determine policies and criteria from 1977 to 1995; and every program staff person and NEA director since the program's inception. Over the life of the program, the NEA awarded 6,500 fellowships to 5,000 artists for a total of $52 million.
The book has 100 full color plates, and 193 additional black and white photographs of fellowship recipients' work. As a companion to the book, the National Museum of American Art is launching a Web site that will present the original slides that fellowship recipients submitted to the NEA with their applications.
In his introduction Bill Ivey writes, “...the NEA Visual Artists' Fellowships linked the agency with working artists. And, in making that connection, the NEA discovered its core commitment to the human dimension of art and art making: the well-being of artists; the vitality and longevity of their careers; the regard with which artists are viewed by the society at large.” A sadness in the demise of the fellowship program is that withdrawing government aid to individual artists can thrust them back into a dependency on collectors. When an artist's work is based almost entirely on economics, the artist, and society, is deprived of creative freedom.
In explaining the end of the program, Ivey says, “In the mid-1990s, faced with a conservative Congressional leadership and deprived of the cold-war argument which viewed artists as valued symbols of America's free spirit, legislation forced the elimination of most of the NEA's fellowships.” It is interesting to ponder the fellowship program as a reactionary institution. Can we hope that, in these reactionary times, the program could rise again? This seems the hope of all of the book's contributors.
Gina Mackintosh is grant program consultant, The ArtCouncil, Inc.