A New Conversation about Culture

Bill Ivey's Big Ideas for the Arts

Diane Ragsdale

Bill Ivey chaired the National Endowment for the Arts from 1998 through 2001, directed the Country Music Foundation from 1971 to 1998, and was twice elected chairman of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He presently serves as founding director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. This essay is a reflection on some of the ideas from Ivey's recently published book, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, as well as from his keynote addresses at the 2004 and 2008 GIA conferences and a recent conversation we had over dinner at a New York diner. I'd like to extend my sincere thanks to Bill for taking the time to talk on the heels of serving on the transition team for President Obama (at the time President Elect), where he helped to bring the arts to the forefront of the new administration.

I first met Bill Ivey at the 2004 GIA conference in Cleveland where he gave a keynote address and rattled more than a few chains when he told a roomful of arts funders that the forty-year old intervention by the philanthropic community in the nonprofit arts system (which aimed to serve the public interest by capitalizing nonprofit arts institutions and, thereby, increasing the supply of artistic experiences in the U.S.) had been so wildly successful it had resulted in an overbuilt sector (evidenced by depressed wages, lack of capital, and defensive, conservative practices). He suggested that it might be time for us to “declare victory, and move on.”

Move on to what, exactly? In our recent conversation, Ivey remarked that the U.S. has never come to terms with American culture for what it really is: a grassroots vernacular “that embraces amateur as well as professional, rural as well as urban, and unschooled as well as schooled.” The concentration of public support and private philanthropy on the “fine arts” is not sustainable, he says, because it “flies in the face of American culture.” In his new book, Arts, Inc., Ivey proposes that if we want to achieve true cultural vibrancy we must “adopt a new, comprehensive approach to our arts system” that encompasses the nonprofit, commercial, and amateur arts organizations that support the creation, preservation, and distribution of arts and culture. Furthermore, we need to coordinate our interventions in these interrelated sectors in order to serve the public interest.

Ivey maintains that the health of the arts and culture system can be evaluated by looking at two processes: nurturing and gate-keeping. He framed this perspective in his 2004 GIA address by asking, “Do arts leaders—the heads of record labels, film studios, art galleries, and performing arts centers—possess the resources and the creative flexibility required to invest in the work of artists; to nurture new or established art of quality? And are the gates sufficiently open: are paths of distribution, wholesale and retail, sufficiently broad and clear to allow a diverse variety of art and artists to readily connect with audiences?”

Ivey posits that those of us who have cared about these functions (nurturing and gate-keeping) in the nonprofit sector have not been, generally speaking, equally interested in understanding them in the for-profit part of the system, in part because we make the assumption that work created and supported by nonprofits is inherently better than work created in the commercial entertainment industry. Furthermore, he says arts funders have shown little interest in the policies affecting for-profit arts industries (e.g., intellectual property, trade in arts products, media regulation, and mergers and acquisitions) and that we should, because their influence on cultural vibrancy and the nonprofit sector is significant.

A good example of this is included in a chapter by Ivey in the recently published Beyond Price: Value in Culture, Economics, and the Arts (Hutter and Throsby, 2008). In his essay, “Going to Extremes,” Ivey reminds those of us who are now dismayed by the state of classical recording in the U.S. that despite regular press attention to the disappearance of the U.S. classical record industry over several decades, neither the NEA nor culturally engaged foundations attempted to craft an intervention with unions and corporations capable of propping up the classical recording industry.

In Arts, Inc., Ivey argues that profound policy changes in our arts system have “elbowed culture away from the public interest over the past century.” Ivey assigns most of the blame to a pro-industry intellectual property regime and rampant deregulation. Arts, Inc. both documents how we got off track in the U.S. and lays out a bold vision for how things could be. He writes, “It is time to establish a new set of goals designed to reclaim art and culture for the American people; it is time to assert the rights of citizens to the multiple benefits of an arts system turned to public purposes.”

He proposes the following Cultural Bill of Rights, which he says we must be willing to assert if we are to provide every American with the benefits of a vibrant, expressive life:

  • The right to our heritage—to explore music, literature, drama, painting, and dance that define both our nation's collective experience and our individual and community traditions.
  • The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life—through their art and the incorporation of their voices and artistic visions into democratic debate.
  • The right to an artistic life—to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose, design, or otherwise live a life of active creativity.
  • The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates America's democratic values and ideals.
  • The right to know about and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived, in many lands, through the ages.
  • The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.

Ivey suggests that pursuing and fulfilling these rights requires legislation and regulation aimed at a slew of disparate agencies responsible for overseeing the various industries and sectors that contribute to the cultural landscape in the U.S.—think, the FCC and Copyright Office—and realigning them with the public interest. He further proposes that such an immense and complicated task may ultimately require a new government agency—a cabinet-level department of cultural affairs that would interface with other major policy ministries (in the West Wing of the White House, not the East).

What about the policies of private foundations? Are we prepared to take action on these ideas? Ivey issued a challenge four years ago: he essentially asked us to broaden our definition of the arts and culture sector and change our practices accordingly. It appears most of us did not race back to our offices after the 2004 GIA conference to recommend a wholesale shift in funding. While there are exceptions, many of us are primarily funding nonprofit arts institutions and are not, for instance, getting involved with the current debate about net neutrality. Nor do many of us seem concerned about the chilling effect that Wal-Mart is having on the range and types of music currently being recorded and distributed in the U.S. (These are only two of many such concerns outlined in Arts, Inc.) And yet, Ivey would make the case that net neutrality, media ownership, and Wal-Mart may affect cultural vibrancy as much, or more, as whether or not we continue to sustain and increase the number of orchestras, theaters, or museums in the U.S.

So why haven't we “moved on”?

First, changing our priorities would not only require development of new programs and cultivation of new partners, but would also call into question the very foundation of our nonprofit arts and culture system—a sector, Ivey says, that seems designed to separate “high” art from “low” art and provide subsidies to the “better” of the two. However, such an approach appears to be out of touch with “real” arts participation in U.S., much of which, particularly in ethnic communities, is grounded in informal art making. As the Irvine Foundation's Cultural Engagement in California's Inland Regions report states, “using a narrow definition of cultural engagement—such as attendance at conventional arts programs in conventional facilities—leaves out significant participation in non-conventional activities.” It also finds that “the home far exceeds theaters, museums and galleries as the most common setting for engaging in cultural activities including music, dance, visual arts and crafts.”

Ivey argues that the time has come for grantmakers to move away from the Western European hierarchy that we long ago adopted and that currently places (and this is my interpretation) Bach above Bjðrk and Bjðrk above Uncle Bob playing banjo in his barn.

Why? He asserts that when we face resistance to the idea of support for the arts it's often because our highest priorities are out of sync with those of everyday Americans. In his recent addressat a 2008 GIA pre-conference in Atlanta, Ivey declared “the nonprofit arts are a weak merit good supported by a thin epistemic norm.” Translation? While the fine arts have standing as “merit goods” favored by government policy, they primarily serve the socially, economically, or aesthetically elite with goods that are too often culturally and financially inaccessible to the vast majority of Americans. The result? The arts maintain a less than robust base of public support in this country. Too many people receive little or no tangible benefit from the current nonprofit arts system, thus whatever generalized good feelings citizens may have about the arts don't translate into sufficient “goodwill” when the arts must compete with education or the environment—when advocacy really counts.

Second, foundation leaders appear to be lacking a clear starting point for changing the forty-year old intervention model. So I asked Ivey, “If you were a program officer and had an arts program what would you do? How do we move forward?” To begin, he suggested that we map the cultural vitality of our communities, assessing points of strength and weakness, and then invest where we are weak. He acknowledges that such assessments are attempted periodically, but says that, too often, such studies are biased towards the nonprofit arts and culture sector. He says that alongside questions about how many dance and opera companies exist (and yes, he says, it is vitally important that we have such institutions in our communities), we should be asking how many independent bookstores are succeeding? How many venues exist for live music of all kinds? How many independent or foreign films play at the multiplex?

This “cultural assessments mapping” may very well lead us to see that Ivey was probably right in 2004 when he said that the nonprofit arts and culture sector is overbuilt and that some resources may need to be diverted from this sector to other destinations. Ivey suggested in our conversation that somewhere between the 7,700 cultural nonprofits that existed in 1965 and the 100,000 that exist today (a figure given by Americans for the Arts) we probably hit an optimum number—a point at which the mid-century goal of making the fine arts more widely available was achieved. Ivey commented that the fine arts are by no means disposable, but also said that by arguing they are the be-all and end-all, they have ended up being marginalized. Instead, he suggests, such arts institutions must see themselves as an important part of a spectrum of American art making.

When I finished reading Arts, Inc., I must admit that my initial response was, “It doesn't give much ink to orchestras, museums, dance companies, or regional theaters.” (Most of Ivey's examples seem to derive from the music industry—no doubt because this is the field in which he worked for years.) However, upon further reflection I began to think that the relative lack of attention to the “high” arts may make the book all the more important for arts funders to read. By-and-large, we've been limiting our conversation to the needs and priorities of the organizations we fund; we've been walking around with only half the picture (if that) in our minds. Arts, Inc. fills big gaps in our view of the cultural landscape.

A lot of capital flowed into the nonprofit arts and culture sector the past thirty years. These last few months, as I watch the economic crisis worsen and observe its impact on all of us and the organizations we fund, I find myself asking, “Where did all the money go?” If arts organizations and their funders had to do it over again, these past few decades, would we make different choices? We're facing a world that is radically different from the one that W. McNeil Lowry at the Ford Foundation encountered in 1957. Does it make sense to stay the course?

Arts, Inc. is an insightful, engaging, and important new book and it has the potential, along with the aforementioned Irvine Foundation report and others like it, to help us reframe the discussion around the arts in America. Ivey's last comment to me was this, “Culture is the last undefined area of public policy. If foundations work together with government to help understand, research, and build a robust cultural policy, we could get it right. It doesn't have to be something monolithic. If we could embrace our diversity and the founding ethos of this country we could create something even healthier than what they have in other countries.” He paused and added, “We need to take a deep breath and begin the conversation.”

Diane Ragsdale is associate program officer for the performing arts, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The views expressed in this essay should not be taken, necessarily, to be the views of the Foundation.

  • Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, University of California Press (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California), 368 pages, © 2008, The Regents of the University of California.
  • Toward a Twenty-first Century Arts Agenda (Bill Ivey's 2004 conference address) can be found in the library on GIA's Web site.
  • Towards a 21st Century Strategy for Grantmakers (Ivey's 2008 pre-conference address) can be found in the “Economic Turmoil and Change” section of GIA's Web site, under, “Change and Possibility, A Silver Lining?”