I wanted to quickly post a few thoughts on the NEA, inspired by Scott Walters’ number-crunching blog post and my plummeting blood sugar.
Poor NEA. It’s batted around by everyone—it doesn’t do enough, it does too much, it’s too progressive, too socialist, too conservative, too good-ol-boy. But it remains, simply, a federal agency that distributes taxpayer money to American nonprofit arts organizations. It is what it is, it can be better, and as is the way of life in Washington, would be difficult to reform. I feel no ill-will toward the Endowment. As an agency, it’s probably one of the most functional with the most bang for its buck, and one of the few that does not do evil. I feel some frustration, however, with the way the NEA functions. Like many arts bureaucracies in business today, it feels outdated and underperforming.
Scott’s numbers are pretty interesting to look at. They confirm what many people know—the award pyramid is big and fat with the major coastal cities on the bottom, then the mid-sized cities, then a teeny tiny tip of funding for “flyover” and southern states. A few comments came up on Twitter about the need to know how many applications are coming from where, which of course would be nice to know, if we could get that information. My reactions all had to do with the back-story of said numbers and applications because, as it is structured now, the mere application process disqualifies the hundreds of small and low-budget theaters dotted across the country. National agency, national problem.
Here’s why: To apply to the NEA, you must have a staff. A minimum of two would be good, and one has to be full time and salaried, along with your artists (this is a legal requirement). A staffer is also highly necessary, because the process of grants.gov registration, getting a DUNS number, registering with CCR, registering as a credential provider and submitting a Point of Contact is a long and frustrating process that requires office equipment, time, organization and planning. You must be a 501c3 or apply through a partner (this is not the same as a fiscal agent). You must have a three-year history of programming. And you have to have impactful programming with preferably a wide reach. These requirements rule out many companies I know.
Now, I know why they do this. The red tape, the frustration, the long chains of approval and checklists an agency follows are all there to protect the taxpayer from fraud and misuse. And I stand by this very firmly. I would not ask or expect the Agency to change its requirements, no matter how desperately small theaters and artists like me need that seed money. Frankly, without an organizational structure, manpower or financial safety net, I cannot be entrusted with federal funds. HOWEVER, as a servant of the people, the Endowment should find ways to try to ensure a healthy community of American theaters in the future, and this very much has to do with feeding the young, the idealistic and underfunded.
My idea: adjust the allocation pie chart. Give the greatest percent to state agencies, and reserve a smaller amount of the pie for direct granting. State agencies, no matter how dysfunctional they may be, fuel art in this country, along with our partner foundations. I would say more about my idea of an ideal structure, using my employer in examples, but unfortunately am not able to do so because I am currently using that employer’s computer. Again, government-style silliness, but it has an important purpose, and I respect that.
…And since I am easily burned out from talking theater, there’s this.