Visionaries and Outcasts
The NEA, Congress, and the Place of the Visual Artist in America
2001, 157 pages, $25. The New Press, New York.
As we move into 2002, a book published in the spring of 2001 should not be overlooked or forgotten. Visionaries and Outcasts: The NEA, Congress, and the Place of the Visual Artist in America, by former New York Times art critic Michael Brenson, delivers a passionate account of the advent and demise of the NEA's visual arts fellowship program. I write this review from the vantage point of someone engaged in supporting individual artists. Putting my own viewpoint aside, however, I believe this book contains important history that all of us who work in the arts need to keep in mind. Understanding the place of art and artists in this country today is impossible without taking into account the loss of the NEA's visual artists' fellowship program.
The book began as an essay on the fellowship program commissioned by Jennifer Dowley, then the Endowment's head of museums and visual arts, in part to inform policy at a time when the reinstatement of fellowships to artists still hung in the balance. This may also account for the books' general brevity and polemical tone.
A large part of the book provides a brief institutional history of the visual arts fellowship program. Because I came of professional age towards the end of the fellowship program's life, I found this history quite interesting. Brenson eloquently tracks the shift in national mood surrounding art and culture, and in particular attitudes about artists, over the thirty-year history of this NEA program. His account begins with the cold-war Kennedy era, out of which came the establishment of the NEA in 1965, and continues through the rhetoric-scorched period of Buchanan and Gingrich and the abolishment of individual artists' fellowships (except for writers) in 1995. Visionaries and Outcasts is far from the comprehensive and critical history that the subject deserves, but it is an attempt to understand what went wrong.
The author steps through the tenures of the different visual arts program directors and examines the impact each had in forming the overall identity of the program and especially the of artists' fellowship program. Most valuable are his insights into the peer panel review process, its evolution, and the thinking behind its structure and purpose. The rather autocratic Henry Geldzahler was the first program director under whose leadership a somewhat nonchalant system of selecting fellowship recipients was implemented: curators from different regions of the country nominated artists from their region for fellowships, without even looking at samples of the artists' work. The implicit assumption was that these artists were of such stature that there was no need to look at their work: everyone who mattered knew it. Brenson provides an insightful look at the tenure of Brian O'Doherty under whom the review system began to take a more democratic shape. Nomination gave way to application and artists working in a wide variety of disciplines were considered for support. But, it was under the stewardship of James Melchert that the rigorous and well-considered system of review that guided fellowship decisions through most of the program's history, came into being.
Brenson believes that the Achilles' heel of the Endowment was the fact that many artists and other supporters "did not grasp that it was the product of historical circumstances." Brenson argues that the Endowment was "conceived at a historical moment when it was considered essential by government to show the world America's capacity for inventiveness, adventurousness, and self-examination." Artists were the embodiment of these values. After the cold war, artists lost their symbolic value to the NEA's identity and mission, and the old arguments for supporting them no longer carried weight. As there was no new rationale to replace the old, artists' fellowship programs were especially vulnerable to scrutiny and to the attack that proved fatal.
Although I find Brenson's portrayal of artists somewhat romanticized, he clearly is someone who cares deeply about them and their work and is someone who actually engages with artists on a regular basis. In his research for this book, he conducted interviews with dozens of artists who had some connection with the visual arts program as well as with former Endowment officials. Brenson looks to the source, and artists' voices maintain a significant presence throughout the book.
In our discussions of the place of artists in the post-NEA-fellowship era, this book can play a central role. Most significantly, Brenson reminds us, in writing and in practice, that we must not dissociate ourselves from artists as we implement programs and develop policies to support their efforts. Visionaries and Outcasts is essential reading for any grantmaker engaged in supporting art and artists.
reviewed by Melissa Franklin, Pew Fellowships in the Arts