Beyond the 1990s' "Culture Wars"

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia explains his mission to bring the arts back to the American mainstream

By Thane Peterson

In my opinion, Dana Gioia is just about the best possible chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts the country could have right now. President Bush appointed Gioia (pronounced "Joy-a") in February, 2003, after conductor and composer Michael P. Hammond died after only a week as NEA chairman. While it can be argued that Gioia's choices are somewhat conservative, a more daring NEA chief probably wouldn't have won the approval of the current Congress. And there's no arguing that he has been successful in making art more accessible to a broader swath of Americans.

Gioia has moved the NEA, which has been chronically underfunded since 1996 because of backing such controversial art as Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic nude photos, back into the mainstream with uncontroversial (and politically unassailable) projects. A good example is Shakespeare in American Communities, which he calls his "signature initiative." Thirty theater companies tour the country performing the Bard's plays at military bases and in more than 200 communities that don't have live professional theater. Other NEA initiatives range from programs honoring jazz masters such as Billy Taylor and Chico Hamilton to a recent report documenting an alarming decline in literary reading.

While these projects are worthwhile, I confess I'd like to see the NEA resume funding some controversial, cutting-edge projects, too. But it's undeniable that Gioia has reestablished the organization's credibility -- and ability to get money -- with lawmakers. Remarkably, funding from the federal government has been climbing: For fiscal 2005, the Bush Administration proposes to raise how much it gives the NEA by 15%, to $139.4 million.

IRRELEVANT POETRY?

  Gioia's practical approach to the arts and funding is a reflection of his personal philosophy. Born in Los Angeles in 1950 of Italian and Mexican heritage, he was the first in his family to attend college, receiving a BA and MBA from Stanford and an MA in comparative literature from Harvard. He worked for General Foods for 15 years, eventually becoming vice-president for marketing, all the while writing poetry and essays. In 1992, he became a full-time writer.

In doing so, Gioia was putting his money where his mouth was: The previous year he had published a controversial article in The Atlantic arguing that poetry had become the private and largely irrelevant province of a small coterie of academics. To become relevant again, he argued, poetry needed to be taken up by nonacademic practitioners and become more mainstream. With his own work, Gioia has been a major force for reintroducing rhyme and narrative to the form. (Check out his writing at danagioia.net.)

I recently caught up with Gioia by phone to talk about the NEA and his priorities. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Q: Let's start by talking about what you refer to in speeches as "the crisis" in arts funding. Why is it a crisis?

A:

The national consensus that created the National Endowment for the Arts to lead federal [arts] funding fell apart about 10 years ago. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the NEA has a budget that's only about one-third of what it enjoyed in its heyday.

Within a few years of the federal consensus breaking down, the state consensus did. Over the past three years, state funding for the arts has declined 60%. Even though public funding represents only a small portion of total arts funding in America, public dollars tend to be the catalyst that raise the rest of the money. Every dollar the NEA gives tends to raise $7. Without strong public support of the arts, corporate, foundation, and private dollars tend to go elsewhere.

Q: Aren't market forces at work here?

A:

I'm a strong believer in the market. But the market really only does one thing: It tells us the price of everything. A culture decides what things in society are beyond price. For example, the U.S. believes that education should be made available to all children outside of the marketplace. It believes a court system should operate outside the marketplace.

To say that the government should play some role in fostering arts and arts education in the country doesn't take anything away from the marketplace. It augments it.

Q: What will be the consequences of letting arts funding continue to dwindle?

A:

The main effect is that whole segments of the population lose access to the arts. The people who are hurt the worst are children, especially in schools. Most Americans, for reasons of location and income, don't have much access to the arts. In fact, we live in a country where the average 18-year-old has never been to the theater, the symphony, dance, opera, or most of the other performing arts.

Their idea of culture is mostly restricted to electronic entertainment. I love electronic entertainment as much as the next person, but it worries me if this is your whole experience of culture. By Thane Peterson

Q: You said in your speech to the National Press Club in June, 2003, that the NEA had been "greatly damaged during the culture wars." What did you mean?

A:

During the [mid-1990s] culture wars, half of the NEA's personnel was let go, and its budget greatly reduced. My goal as chairman of the NEA is to bring the agency beyond the culture wars to create an institution which Americans trust and esteem. The NEA, I'm happy to say, now brings programs of indisputable value to the broadest public ever reached in this country.

Q: Speaking of which, why is bringing Shakespeare to smaller communities so important?

A:

Virtually every state in America mandates that high-school students study Shakespeare. Most students, however, have never seen a production of Shakespeare [yet] often they've never seen a production of any live theater. By the end of next year we will have brought 1 million high school students into their first performance of Shakespeare.

Q: Another of your big initiatives is Operation Homecoming, in which prominent writers, historians, and poets offer writing workshops to troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. What do you hope to achieve with Operation Homecoming?

A:

In human terms, it gives [returning troops] a chance to get perspective on their experience and avoid the kind of alienation that happened during the Vietnam era. In historical terms, Operation Homecoming will be creating written archives from these wars. Thirdly, it's important in literary terms. I'm confident we'll be discovering some significant new writers who may not otherwise have a chance to emerge.

Q: It would seem that your approach to arts funding is to some degree a formula for blandness. Shouldn't art at times do some of the things that got the NEA in trouble in the past -- anger and provoke people?

A:

We support 2,000 grants a year across all of the arts, across various styles and aesthetics. But the purpose of art really is to engage the completeness of our humanity, to cover every human possibility. To characterize the mission of art as merely to anger and provoke...

Q: I characterized that as one of art's missions, among others...

A:

I would have to come up with 300 adjectives for Shakespeare before bland came to mind.

Q: Safe, then.

A:

I don't even think he's safe. I've seen this with audiences. Shakespeare is exciting, disturbing, and profound.

Q: In one of your first speeches as NEA chairman, you essentially said that you have to face reality, and the reality is that we live in conservative times. Could we get something like a Mapplethorpe exhibit funded today?

A:

You've asked me a question I've been asked 500 times. Let me give you the frank answer. There are people in this country who are obsessed with fighting the cultural battles of the previous century.

My goal at the National Endowment for the Arts is to compel America to answer the following question: What do we see as the future for the 60 million American kids who have been born since the [1990] Mapplethorpe exhibition? What role do we want art to play in their communities and their education?

I don't see people asking or answering this question. And it's a far more interesting and urgent one.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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