We’re All in the Struggle

by MK Wegmann, president and CEO, National Performance Network

In response to the question “Can intermediaries be more successful than institutionalized funders in supporting the organic process of art making within the communities described as marginalized by the NCRP report, as well as those engaged in art and social justice?” I’d offer an emphatic yes, since this is a role that the National Performance Network plays. Our support contributes to a network of organizations whose missions intersect with ours with a deliberate intention to be inclusive on a level playing field; we are also providing an infrastructure in New Orleans for artists and emerging organizations. We are field-generated and field-led. When intermediaries are an example of community organizing they do function well (Alternate ROOTS is another example); when they are established by funders, I’m less convinced. Bottom up versus top down.

I come from an organization that self-defines as artist-focused, and that is committed to working for cultural equity and social justice, explicit in NPN’s vision and values statement. We have long been clear about the inequities that exist in arts funding, so the report is a welcome document for the formal analysis it provides and the data to back it up. After all, the arts and culture sector mirrors the world in which we live: we are the 99%.

Few remember the critique that was brought about the inequity in the NEA’s funding patterns in the years before the culture wars (during which that critique was overshadowed by attacks from the outside). I could even posit that it was in fact the threat posed to the status quo by increasingly diverse NEA panels—particularly in Inter-Arts, Solo Theater and Visual Arts—that fueled the fires that led to the dismantling of two very important aspects of NEA funding that directly relate to the issues of inequity: individual artists fellowships and re-granting programs, both of which can only be restored by an act of Congress. This was not just a loss of funds but a cascading collapse of systems. We cannot go soft on the need for government support if we are to achieve change.

There are some troubling responses I’ve already heard to the NCRP report, including in the discussion at GIA following its presentation when the conversation soon trended toward the age-old excuse that funders would like to support “these kinds” of organizations, but they’ve found that “they” lack adequate organizational structures to receive substantial funding. There was a time in arts funding when there was a strong push from some foundations for the 2% institutions to diversify their audiences—which led to inequitable partnerships between the major institutions and culturally specific organizations, sapping their boards and audiences and giving more resources to those that already had the most resources. This is a troubling aspect of the capitalization discussion that is also taking place: it encourages giving more to fewer—investing more deeply in those organizations already being funded—at the expense of new organizations or artists coming to the table.

Now, as occurred during the Alternative Space movement in the 1970’s and 80’s, artists are forming new organizations because the existing ones are not serving them; while some parts of the country may be “overbuilt,” many places lack any kind of support system for any artists, much less those who are marginalized and working for a more just and equitable world. Now, we don’t want any more arts 501(c)(3)s. Given that this corporatized structure is the only way most foundations and government funders can give resources, is this not closing the door on the very ones who deserve the support? The ongoing inability of artists to have organizations that they control providing an infrastructure for their work is not a good trend. It does make the case for intermediaries as a vehicle to that infrastructure, and consolidation of administrative efforts is a desirable strategy, but having to work project to project without a stable environment is not a sustainable system. It begs the question of operating support.

To supplement the facts that the NCRP report provides, I think we also need a cogent and explicit defense of the absolute need for subsidy to sustain artists and cultural workers making and supporting new work in a contemporary context, whether they are working in traditional or experimental forms. This defense must include validation of organizations that artists found and run, and their ability to control assets, to be self determined in their organizational structures, and to have adequate compensation and benefits so they can dedicate their lives to their work and be contributing members of their communities.

Change must come from within the arts community, as well as from those who fund it. Mandates to the field tend to backfire, creating greater opposition to these goals. It’s not about cutting the same pie in smaller, more even slices; the power dynamic that exists between grant makers and grant seekers has to be different also. Can we be colleagues seeking the same just ends? Intermediaries can certainly be one good path to that outcome.