American Canvas: A Roundtable on the 1997 NEA Report

Article excerpt

On October 13, 1997, the New York Times ran a front-page story with the bombshell headline "Study Links Drop in Support to Elitist Attitude in the Arts." The study is American Canvas, a Igo-page book published by the National Endowment for the Arts and intended, in the words of its now-departed chairman, Jane Alexander, to look at the "ecology of the arts process . . . and at different models for stabilization and survival" (4). The Times story set off a feeding frenzy in the national news media. Many journalists were eager to subject the endowment and artists to the contempt that the media and politicians had poured on them in 1989, when the endowment crisis began. What made the Times article so shocking to many arts professionals who had exhausted themselves fighting for the endowment's survival was its assertion that the endowment was now placing the responsibility for the current crisis in arts funding squarely on the shoulders of the art world. No one and nothing else shared the blame, not Jesse Helms, the Christian Coalition, museum boards, the news media, or the NEA itself.

After spending hours with friends trying to clarify the assumptions behind the Times article, I began to wonder how younger arts professionals who had not been combatants in the culture wars would respond to the book. What would fresh voices say about issues I and many others had cared about so deeply, for so long, that we may no longer have the distance to frame them in ways that can inspire fruitful conversation? I thought of the Curatorial Studies Program at Bard College-the only curatorial program in the United States exclusively concerned with contemporary art-where I had taught a writing course in the spring of 1997 and would be teaching another in the spring of 1998. I found the students thoughtful, candid, and unpredictable. I had no idea what their responses to American Canvas would be.

The book was based on six regional forums held in 1996 (Columbus; Los Angeles; Salt Lake City; Rock Hill, South Carolina/Charlotte, North Carolina; San Antonio; Miami). In each one, arts professionals and civic leaders were asked to consider the beneficial effects of art on communities. The challenge, the book states, "is to transform the arts in the civic context from their present status as amenities that are added once the necessities are taken care of, into one of the primary means of addressing those necessities in the first place" (167). The book's attack on the complacency of the art world was welcome. So was its wake-up call to arts organizations, which must learn to work together. Some of its stories about the effects of art on the everyday lives of struggling people were inspiring.

But the book is immediately confusing. The role of the author, Gary O. Larson, is unclear and uneasy; and an explanation about him and his voice is never provided. In addition, in her introduction, Alexander does not explain why the book was published at this point-the month she resigned. In another Times article published that October announcing her resignation, Alexander blasted conservative critics for "attempting to capitalize on public outrage over a minuscule number of controversial projects that had received Federal support." But that anger is nowhere to be found in the book, which reserves much of its hostility for large arts institutions without having the sense to recognize how self-defeating it is to essentially exclude them from a national conversation about art and community. Published roughly two years after the endowment eliminated grants to individual artists to ensure its survival, the book avoids the issue of individual artists almost completely. In short, with all the admirable ideas and sentiments expressed in it, we could not take anything in it at face value. What is American Canvas? Why was it written? What does it say about the endowment now? Why is it obsessed with community? What does community mean? The following roundtable was held in New York in November 1997. …