Rocco Rocks the Blog (Janet's Blog)

(1-31-2011) Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, stirred up emotions, which enflamed the blogosphere at a conference on new play development held at Arena Stage, Washington D.C. last week. He talked about the demand from audiences for theatre being down and the supply being up. He mentioned that small grants may be inhibiting the growth of professional theatre artists since they do little to provide a living wage. Maybe larger fewer grants are the alternative.

People get crazy when arts leaders talk like this. In reading the blogs, I envisioned fights in the conference aisles. Then I went to the source and actually watched and listened (albeit difficult due to technical issues with the recording) to the live presentation moderated beautiful by Diane Ragsdale, lately of the Mellon Foundation. It was a much more civil discourse than what I got from bloggers. Rocco was answering questions off the top of his head. Good grief, pretty soon you won’t be able to even talk to someone without written notes for fear of the blogosphere erupting. He’s explained himself further today.

But two ideas Rocco put forth have me digging deeper about the dilemma facing artists and arts organizations. First, he talked a lot about community based art-making for which I’ve been a strong proponent since my days working in rural communities in the Midwest. Relevance to mission and an organization’s position within community is essential. Is it, however, in conflict with the idea of supply and demand and a funder’s mission to promote and support artists? I know from GIA’s work in capitalization that when you mention supply and demand and the need to restructure grantmaking, many interpret that as giving larger grants to major institutions. In fact, I think we need to consider another scenario.

What if institutionalized funders were to reassess those small grants to large institutions and focus on supporting the bottom half of the eco-system where those small dollars aren’t small dollars and can make a huge difference? Rocco is right that the funding currently being given to most major institutions from foundations and the NEA is a very small portion of their budgets and has little impact. These institutions have the community support, professional staff and connection with individual donors and subscribers to keep them going. They are also better equipped to solicit corporate dollars.

So if funders focused on small and mid-sized organizations, would we build a firmer base for supporting the arts throughout the community? Supporting efforts to create new work, ethnic-centric organizations, individual artists, neighborhood centers and the organizations that support them, like advocacy, professional development and education groups, could build a more relevant and healthy arts community. Just a thought.

In reality, funders, private and public, make these kinds of decisions based on their own missions and on the reality of where their funds can make the greatest impact on the cultural growth of their community. Olive Mosier said it best in today’s Barry’s Blog. So the greatest issue with having broad discussions on funding like the one Rocco found himself in at the New Play Convening is that one size does not fit all and broad statements, without community evaluation, just add to the craziness of the times we’re in.