Twenty years ago, Alvin Toffler, author of the later Future Shock, wrote in The Culture Consumers, “Around a core of large, safe institutions will grow smaller, less solid institutions. For these, life will be increasingly difficult, unless we realize that they may be quite as important in the long run to the health of our culture as the core institutions are today.”
Unfortunately, I can confirm the accuracy of Mr. Toffler’s prophecy. Life is definitely difficult, both for these smaller institutions and the individual artists who populate them, and any revelation that the health of our culture might hinge, even partially, on these “smaller, less solid institutions” appears to be light years away in the minds and hearts of a majority of the funding community.
Toffler also posited, “The time will come, sooner or later, when the process of bureaucratization will advance to excess and begin to standarize our cultural production. At that point we may, figuratively speaking, have to tear down the centers and councils we are now building and reorganize the culture industry in ways as yet unimagined. This should not dismay us, for the process of growth, decay and regeneration in society is unending.”
I would propose that the time Toffler speaks of is here—that our cultural production has become standardized, that the process of bureaucratization has advanced to excess, at and that we are desperately in need of revitalization. And further, that the desirable regeneration is not likely to come from the so-called “major institutions,” which bear a striking resemblance to dinosaurs in their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing cultural climate. The regeneration is instead most likely to find its home in the multitude of smaller, more vital, racially, ethnically and geographically diverse arts organizations that currently permeate both the rural and urban American landscape.
The avowed mission of the National Endowment for the Arts (taken from its 1985-86 program guidelines) is, first, to foster the excellence, diversity and vitality of the arts in the U.S., and second, to help broaden the availability and appreciation of such excellence, diversity and vitality. “In implementing its mission the Endowment must exercise care to preserve and improve the environment in which the arts have flourished. It must not, under any circumstances, impose a single aesthetic standard or attempt to direct artistic content.”
Let’s look at only one program at the Endowment—the Theatre Program. It is a program which strives to be innovative and to effectively address the needs of the field. But let’s look at one funding category of this program—the professional theatre companies category. For fiscal 1984, 191 grants have been awarded, totaling over $7 million. Twenty-four (or 13 percent) of the organizations will receive 63 percent of the funds. At the bottom end of the scale, some 35 percent of the organizations selected for funding will receive a total of only 3 percent of the $7 million total. The universe of grantees does represent a racial and ethnic mix, as well as embracing a variety of artistic styles.
I will not quibble with that universe. But isn’t this skewing in the disbursement of funds a kind of de facto imposition of a particular aesthetic standard–one which implies that bigger is better? In Atlanta, where Alternate ROOTS is based, the situation has deteriorated into a quietly belligerent “we-they” one, with an enormous amount of support, both public and private, going to three or four organizations and the remaining dozens of small and medium-sized organizations being forced to compete for an inadequate amount of available funding. I daresay that Atlanta is not an anomaly. No one is questioning the right of these major institutions to exist—they also serve a constituency. But that is all they serve—a constituency. They are addressing the cultural needs and tastes of a small minority of the population. In fact, the efforts of the major institutions to widen their markets by diversifying their audience profile has never permeated very deeply into the community. In Atlanta, a city with a majority black population, I have rarely seen a black face in the Arts Alliance building. I’m not convinced that our major institutions can ever be true community centers, and their (often further subsidized) efforts to distribute their products through outreach are really only examples of a kind of cultural colonization—assuming the supremacy of the kind of art generally produced by these organizations.
We have the irony of considerable support, both public and private, going to subsidize the cultural tastes of the most affluent segment of the population. Is the role of a local or national cultural policy to ensure that the tastes of any one group are supported in a manner and to an extent that is wildly out of line with support for the cultural needs of other segments of the population? In a democracy, I think it is not.
Here in the Southeast the situation is especially desperate. There is virtually no enlightened philanthropy in the private sector. Where there is arts support, it is almost always for the traditional red-carpet institutions, with very little “trickle-down” (where is that “trickle-down”?) to the smaller organizations. A listing by the Foundation Center of funders who gave at least $5,000 to small and emerging arts programs in 1981-82 reveals that, in the entire Southeast (11 Southern states minus the District of Columbia) the total reported giving, public and private, was only $1,345,341. In comparison, the District of Columbia alone was reported at close to a million, the states of Connecticut and Indiana and Ohio reported over a million each, over $2 million in both Minnesota and Texas, over $3 million in Pennsylvania and Michigan, over $5 million in California and over $7 million in New York. Lest we lose perspective, it is important to point out that there are a number of large institutions with endowment funds that exceed the $7 million disbursed in New York State to over 300 small and emerging arts programs.
Do we have an interest, as a society, in building an indigenous American culture, one that is reflective of the incredible vitality and diversity of the country? I want to believe that we do. The NEA has been a pioneer in shaping dialogue and perceptions in a national context. The Challenge Program is evidence of the enormous power of public sector support in stimulating private sector awareness and giving. I believe that a well designed program of advocacy activities, pieces of which are already in place at the Endowment, could also have an enormous impact on a local response to the needs of these smaller organizations—a response that must include respect for racial and ethnic diversity as well as diversity in content and artistic style.
There is a fear on the part of the high culture constituency that democratization will lead to a reduction in standards. Democratization is not the peril. The tragedy is that only lip service is paid to democratization, with support so insufficient as to ensure that the visions cannot be fully realized.
Without adequate support, we will indeed see many artists painfully limping toward Bethlehem, waiting to be born. With a future for the arts that includes respect and support for these artists, we might see a renaissance that could indeed transform the “culture industry in ways as yet unimagined.”
Ruby Lerner is executive director of Alternate ROOTS, a coalition of professional, community-based performing arts organizations and individuals based in the Southeast.
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