When the Private Sector Funds the Arts

March 8, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 35 5 min read

I recently wrote a piece defending the National Endowment for the Arts, a grantmaking organization that represents .001 percent of the U.S. annual budget but is somehow such a drag on the economy that it is now very publicly on the chopping block (along with sister agencies, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) for the federal 2017 budget. This move makes perfect sense for Donald Trump the businessman, according to GOP enablers, because if the arts and so-called free expression are so worthy, the private sector will step in and fund them.

As if on cue into my in-box comes the news that the very temple of capitalism, The Mall of America, is initiating a Writer-in-Residence program, giving “a special scribe the chance to spend five days deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere” along with an honorarium,  food stipend, and housing.

Residencies for artists to create art isn’t a new idea. But this is the first time I’ve seen one that has been offered by a corporation (MOA Holdings, LLC).

coverNormally, residencies are funded by a combination of public funding and private donors and foundations that support the arts. The nation’s oldest residency program is the MacDowell Colony, founded in the early 1900s by composer Edward MacDowell, who noted to his wife, a pianist, that in their summer location on their bucolic farm in New Hampshire, he produced better — and more — music. The MacDowell Colony was born out of the desire to share this experience, and various artists, including writers, visual artists, composers, and choreographers from all over the world travel to Peterborough, N.H., to sleep in communal quarters, eat wonderful food, and work without distraction in a studio out in the woods. Work that has come out of this one place has shaped the American cultural landscape — e.g., Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town there; over the years, the Colony has dispensed this gift of time and creativity to artists as varied as James Baldwin, Aaron Copland, and Meredith Monk. This gift is made possible in part by public funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

When I was starting out as a young fiction writer, the advice I received most often from mentors and editors even before I started getting published regularly was to do a residency. I was working on Wall Street to support myself (so I could live alone in New York City — and write), and attending artist residencies were some of the first opportunities I had to meet other artists.

When I’m lucky enough to get an artist’s residency, as soon as I’m on the grounds, I enter into what I consider a sacred state: an intentional community detached from the outside world, where signal can finally be separated more easily from noise. This paradise for the mind is also free or minimal cost, they sometimes come with stipends for lost wages. One favorite, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, received an NEA grant for Collateral Reparations, which funds a residency scholarship for a veteran.

These residencies are purposeful in their locations; one of them buries its power lines to eliminate visual clutter, another one is in the stunning landscape of Wyoming. The last residency I did, at the Mesa Refuge in coastal California, the sky, devoid of the usual light pollution, had so many stars it was startling; the impressive dark was initially alien — then inspiring — to this city-dweller.

The basic artist residency is a studio, a place to sleep, and food. Composers’ studios, for instance, have pianos (Steinways at one) that are carefully and professionally tuned. Visual artists studios have huge blank walls. Writers’ studios tend to be monk-like in their simplicity: desks, a bed for napping. Ample space to spread out chapters, to group poems. One studio had a wall made of corkboard that looked like a starry sky, punctured infinite times by all the writers who’d been through, pinning up their notes. There are no ringing phones, no drop-ins. Often, no Internet.

It’s in this quiet that dreams swim to the surface more readily, and I am there waiting to write them down, instead of my usual: making mental grocery shopping lists, scheduling appointments, watching the clock.

When I saw the ad promoting a residency at the Mall of America, my first impulse was “I must apply!” See, a bunch of scenes in my novel take place in the freaking Mall of America! It had a nice honorarium ($2,500) for 5 days in residence at a connected mall hotel, plus a $400 food stipend, which is a lot of Cinnabons.

But a quick look at the terms reveals the horrifying things the artist gives up in the for-profit residency: her art.

Regimented by corporate decree, instead of a studio in the woods, “Workspace will be located in a common area space within Mall of America.”

You basically clock in: “The core daily work hours will be 11:00am to 7:00pm.”

And, like being a busy-bee warehouse worker at Amazon.com where bathroom breaks are monitored for frequency and efficiency:  “While the Winner will be encouraged to take breaks from writing to explore the Mall, post on social media, eat and find inspiration, the Winner will need to be physically present at the writer’s desk for no fewer than four (4) hours per day.” Prime one-day shipping waits for no one — why should art?

Inwardlooking-ness, contemplation, stillness has never been a friend to corporations, so:

“The Winner’s ongoing work may be displayed in almost-real time on a large monitor at the workspace. The work product may scroll continuously throughout the day for passersby to view.”

When a business takes over, the artist residency basically becomes its opposite. The protected space of creation becomes a publicity stunt for consumer entertainment. I noted the Mall of America’s Writer-in-Residence announcement was a PR release touted as an “event,” wedged in the website, not even meriting a place as a “Feature Event” like “Clash of the Super Beers” and “Toddler Tuesday.”

What we have here, when for-profit private interests take over, is not an artist residency, but a propaganda-PR content factory (indeed, the content must “be approved by a Mall of America Marketing representative” to not be “contradictory to the Mall of America’s desired presentation of the Mall”).

But even more worrisome is the idea of corporate ownership of an artist’s work: the writer “unconditionally agrees that Sponsor shall be the exclusive owner of all right, title, and interest in and to any and all work product, materials, and content produced by Winner during the MOA Writer-in-Residence.”

I’m not saying art cannot be created by the private sector. But I am saying that it’s unlikely, given these terms — of the work and of the ownership — that few artists I know would consider such a risk. And it’s not as if there isn’t a history of artists producing works for pay: during the Depression, a full 7 percent of the Works Progress Administration’s budget was given over to art, as the head of the WPA acknowledged that artists needed economic relief from the devastation of 1929, like any other workers.

Through the arts, music, theatre, and writers projects, Post Offices were decorated, plays were written. The Federal Writers project created the well-known American Guide series to the states. Some of the 20th century’s greatest abstract painters, such as Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, were kept afloat during the Depression by their employment creating realistic figurative murals for the government. For Willem de Kooning, WPA funding made it possible for the first time for him to concentrate fully on fine art instead of having to do commercial painting.

Do we want a small number of taxpayer dollars — roughly 45 cents per person — helping fund the next wave of important artists? Put another way: should corporations provide us with “work product” — clever, enjoyable, and effective ads for capitalism? Or do we want art off the workaday clock, art that’s been allowed to effloresce into all its beautiful, strange, and disturbing forms?

Put another way: do we want work that explores the void, or do we want “Void where prohibited?

Image Credit: Flickr/Cliff.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, Slate, Salon, Guernica, Poets & Writers, and The Guardian. Her novel, The Evening Hero, is forthcoming with Simon & Schuster (May 2022). She teaches fiction at Columbia and shares a hometown with Bob Dylan.


  1. Ah, Mall of America… ! *Shudder*. It was 1995 and I had returned to the US, with First Wife, after 5 years in Europe, to get First Wife a Green Card. I had saved enough for us to live for about 18 months (staying at a friend’s house near Lake Calhoun) but, as it turned out, I *had* to get a job (any job) in order to get her the Green Card…

    Cut to: Payless (emphasis on the first syllable) Shoe Source, in the Mall of America. Quite an adventure. The only thing more impressive than the fact that the M.o.A. is so big that it has its own weather (moisture in the upper atmosphere, under the roof, condenses and you get sun showers) is the weight- capacity of the elevators: it seemed as though the average American had gained an average of 150 pounds in the five years I’d been gone.

    I was writing quite a lot, so I was an *unofficial writer in residence*, but, if polemic is a minor literature, polemic against the patrons of the Mall of America is even worse. I didn’t get my Muse back until First Wife got the Green Card and we escaped to Southern California, where she took (like a duck to Exxoned water) to the basest elements of So Cal life. I got *so* many (scars and) stories out of that… but… I digress…

    It goes without saying that any piece of writing, coming out of a corporate sponsorship, that, miraculously, happened to be *actual Literature*… would not be deemed “appropriate” by the sponsors. Unless, of course, you’re talking about a corporate sponsorship in a hemisphere that doesn’t contain a shopping Mall so big that it has its own weather.

  2. One of America’s greatest failings (beyond the transformation of its armed forces into the world’s most well-funded terrorist squad and utter inability to fathom universal healthcare) is its total disinterest in funding the arts, which is what every other Western nation does. The arts cannot be easily monetized like war, healthcare and now education, though, which is why bureaucrats mock its role in society. Pathetic.

  3. “The Winner’s ongoing work may be displayed in almost-real time on a large monitor at the workspace. The work product may scroll continuously throughout the day for passersby to view.”

    You could make a case for this aspect of the week as a sort of performance art opportunity, although my recollection is the Mall wants to exercise control over what the writer has to say for the big “almost real time” screen. So what this is not is a residency or a fellowship, and the copyright aspect is exploitative in the extreme. I have entertained doomed hopes that the Mall would reconsider its terms. If other prospective benefactors ( a word that, alas for me, inevitably conjures Mr Brocklehurst) are inclined to set up arts funding, I hope they will look to organizations like Atlantic Center for the Arts, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Yaddo, MacDowell etc for guidance.

    For all the disdain directed toward the mall, with fair terms I believe this could be a great opportunity. So many public spaces (malls, train stations, hotel lobbies, public libraries) are ideal places to work and draw on the environment and fabulous people-watching opportunities to create. Look at the hordes of writers hunkered down in coffeehouses or applying for the Amtrak residency.

    Thanks for writing this piece, I am going to click on through to your NEA article.

  4. beamish13:

    What facts do you have to back that up? What’s the evidence that in the US there’s less public and private non-profit support for the arts than in, say, Germany or the UK? Keep in mind that states and local municipalities have their own programs for funding the arts, that private non-profit and charitable institutions (McArthur, etc.) have gigantic budgets, and that a lot of funding is done through publicly-funded universities.The NEA is but a small fraction of support for the arts in the US. The US has hundreds of literary magazines, and practically all of them are publicly-funded in one way or another. How many does Sweden have, per capita? Got numbers?

    Also, where’s the evidence that more money = better art? No, it’s not obvious or self-evident. One could argue that many young writers are stifled by too much support (e.g. MFA, followed by a writing residency) so that they don’t get to live life. As a result, their writing is sterile, solipsistic, limited. There are many young writers nowadays who have never had a real job precisely because there’s too much support.

  5. “Also, where’s the evidence that more money = better art? No, it’s not obvious or self-evident. One could argue that many young writers are stifled by too much support (e.g. MFA, followed by a writing residency) so that they don’t get to live life.”

    There’s a tricky balance to strike. Too much support (aka coddling) and decadence sets in. Too little or no support, on the other hand, means little or no writing gets done.

    When I went through a phase of working long hours at physically-demanding jobs (eg house painting or deck-building), all I wanted to do, after getting home from work, every day, was eat directly out of a pot, read, pass out, groan up out of my dreams before the crack of dawn, stagger off to work, repeat. The first few months of that I was able to get writing done on the weekends, but, as I discovered, after more than a year of this routine, it’s as though the accumulated hours of back-breaking just pile up into a black mountain of bleakest Reality, looming derisively over the twee golden fantasy molehill of Writing. Any sane Writer, in these circumstances, starts questioning the point of the practise.

    In other words, it’s not just the fantasy on the page that matters; the Writing Life itself requires a safe space in which to nurture the primary fantasy that Writing *matters*, that it’s a legitimate thing for an adult to do with her/his time. Especially in a pathologically materialist culture. A *bit* of support from the Government (in any concession to the notion that Culture is a serious pursuit) is both a necessary easing and a nod of assent.

    I lived in Stockholm, for a while, at the turn of the century and I met some unknown Writers there who were supported by the Gov with the solicitousness you’d expect to be shown to scientists developing advanced weapons systems, which did wonders for those Writers’ self-confidence. This is especially important if the work being done by a Writer is not *commercial*; the so-called Free Market may indeed support the efforts of the (slick) commercial talent, but the Weirdos, experimenting with the Challenging and Difficult, definitely need subsidies from *somewhere*.

    I never got (or applied for) grants/stipends/retreats but I moved to a city in a country where Literary Culture is still discussed and debated on prime time TV and where the rents/ groceries/ discos are cheap and one doesn’t feel a fool for Writing. Which is all I need, really. I have (Weirdo) readers and a sense of the usefulness and *sanity* of the practise. Perfect.

    People expect “real Writers” to keep on writing, regardless, but I don’t think it usually happens that way. Youthful Enthusiasm catapults one onward to 20-something Inspiration and thence to 30-something Endurance shading to Sheer Cussedness… but then what?

    If a few crumbs from Gov saves the endangered species of the talented, forty-something, Weirdo House Painter/ Writer, I’m all for it. Because *those* voices are going to be more interesting, as you point out, for having lived a bit.

  6. By the way, I can’t get over the fact that a published novelist is writing sentences such as “This paradise for the mind is also free or minimal cost, they sometimes come with stipends for lost wages.” None of my eighth-grade tutees would dare send a sentence like that across my desk.

  7. It’s really easy to rip on the “Megamall” – the jokes practically write themselves – but for lifelong Minnesotans like myself the mall we love to hate is an inextricable part of our lives. My father worked on the construction of the original mall; decades later I worked on another project there. Camp Snoopy, the original amusement park, was better than it needed to be; I’ve probably ridden the many iterations of the Log Flume more than any other ride at any other park. I’ve been to the mall for birthday parties, stoned-teenager movie viewings, a prom dinner (inexplicably), a crazy long night with my wife in the 4th floor bars; I’ve seen the wide-eyed wonder of my children as they gaze upon marine life at Underwater World; I’ve played hooky from work to build a stuffed animal with my oldest daughter on Toddler Tuesday; I’ve been baffled by the size of crowds on a random Tuesday morning in April. I remember the enormous Sam Goody and the memorabilia shop on the first floor (home to the most expensive retail space in the state) and the island-themed restaurant on the 3rd.

    So, sure, the Mall is capitalism run amok – it doesn’t have its own weather (lol Steven) but it does have its own zip code. Yet the Mall has employed tens of thousands of people over the years. Hearty Minnesotans may sneer at the suckers who do their Christmas shopping there (so expensive) yet almost all of us have made a last-minute trip there (if you can’t find a gift at the Mall…) It is an incredibly diverse place, which makes it the premier place to practice the fine art of people-watching. It draws visitors from around the globe (Japan in particular, for reasons I haven’t quite nailed down), which is the only place in Minnesota that can claim that.

    All of this is to say that there are GREAT stories to be written about the Mall. Some sort of “oral history” project would be fascinating. An hour of people-watching in the Rotunda or one of the food courts would provide inspiration for a terrific short story or three. The labyrinthine back-of-house areas – loading docks, mechanical spaces, administrative offices – would be a terrific setting for a murder mystery. It’s too bad the Mall folks are viewing this purely from the PR lens. By giving a solid writer a true residency, there’s no telling what would come out of it – but like the Mall itself, it could not avoid being interesting.

  8. Toad!

    I found the place lethally-tacky (and embodying everything wrong, and environmentally toxic, about the “Biggest is Bestest” approach), though maybe it became a domed Greenwich Village, c. 1966, after I left…

    …but I *did* get one really useful experience out of it: riding to work one morning, I sat behind a couple who began chatting about what they’d do with the money if they won that week’s Bigass Lottery. It was a long ride, and by the end of it, the chat had become a vicious verbal punch-up, with the lady of the couple changing her seat, the two each then muttering solo, at opposite ends of the bus, for the rest of the ride. Because the gentleman had declared “If I won that money, I wouldn’t give *any* of it to *you*.”

  9. Steve, don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling it some sort of hidden paradise by any means – again, the vulgarities are so obvious they need not be mentioned. My only points were 1) the place is a major part of the culture of the region, like it or not; and 2) there are plenty of great stories to be told from there.

  10. Toad!

    Were you stationed out in Bloomington or closer to St Paul/ Mpls? If the latter (depending on your vintage; I bet these places are long gone) ever have a “Red Earth Breakfast” at the Seward Cafe? Or buy records at Positively Fourth Street (or OarFolkJokeOpus)? Feeling some guarded nostalgia…

  11. It appears that Ms. Lee and, evidently, The Millions, just don’t get it. The problem with taxpayers funding NEA, NEH, and CPB is that these organizations ARE the “propaganda content factories” that Ms. Lee and, evidently, The Millions, are so concerned about. If they were not, already, off-the-chart-left-leaning, they would not be on the chopping block. The potential demise of taxpayer funding for NEA, NEH, and CPB has nothing to do with President Trump’s business acumen. It has everything to do with NEA, NEH, and CPB being the propaganda content factories the left.

  12. Frank:

    More broadly, the problem with taxpayers funding the arts is that once you fund something with your tax dollars, you feel (rightly) that you have the right to control it. Remember the “Jesus Piss” scandal in that museum in Brooklyn about a decade ago? The left whined about censorship and religious coercion, but the right had a valid point: what right do you have to offend me using my tax dollars? Use your own money to do so.

    But the left doesn’t get that. It wants public funds AND the freedom to do with them what it wills. Tax dollars with no strings. And that doesn’t work.

  13. “And that doesn’t work.”

    Well, not under America’s current grid of guiding principles. This is an except from William Osborne’s “Marketplace of Ideas: But First, The Bill”…

    “As an American who has lived in Europe for the last 24 years, I see on a daily basis how different the American and European economic systems are, and how deeply this affects the ways they produce, market and perceive art. America advocates supply-side economics, small government and free trade – all reflecting a belief that societies should minimize government expenditure and maximize deregulated, privatized global capitalism. Corporate freedom is considered a direct and analogous extension of personal freedom. Europeans, by contrast, hold to mixed economies with large social and cultural programs. Governmental spending often equals about half the GNP. Europeans argue that an unmitigated capitalism creates an isomorphic, corporate-dominated society with reduced individual and social options. Americans insist that privatization and the marketplace provide greater efficiency than governments. These two economic systems have created something of a cultural divide between Europeans and Americans.

    “Germany’s public arts funding, for example, allows the country to have 23 times more full-time symphony orchestras per capita than the United States, and approximately 28 times more full-time opera houses. [1] In Europe, publicly funded cultural institutions are used to educate young people and this helps to maintain a high level of interest in the arts. In America, arts education faces constant cutbacks, which helps reduce interest.


    “In its purest form, America’s neo-liberalism would suggest that cultural expression that doesn’t fit in the marketplace doesn’t belong at all. For the arts, the alternative has been to maintain a relatively marginalized existence supported by gifts from corporations, foundations and the wealthy. A system similar to a marginal and elitist cultural plutocracy evolves. This philosophy is almost diametrically opposed to the tradition of large public cultural funding found in most of Europe’s social democracies.”


  14. This seems like a response to my earlier comment asking for evidence, not to my later one. My point remains: if you want taxpayers to support your art, you have to be willing to put up with the taxpayers regulating your art. Lee demands that tax dollars be taken from taxpayers and given to her, but she’d be the first to complain that the same taxpayers who gave her the money want her to do with it x rather than y.

  15. “My point remains: if you want taxpayers to support your art, you have to be willing to put up with the taxpayers regulating your art. ”

    Not sure why that should be axiomatic… if the tax payers *understand and value* Culture (in the sense of The Arts). If the TPs think Culture is just another grouping of commodities and/ or services, that’s a deeper problem than the lack of funding for it. And they often do. And it is. There’s more to Life than money and more to the notion of Value(s) than quid-pro-quo transactions, no?

    Not that I want to go around and around on the topic (I know the ideological divide is unbridgeable in either direction), I just wanted to register another POV for the sake of any residual American Bohemians out there, in hiding, reading this, tremulously, in some attic with a secret entrance… (laugh)

  16. Steven:

    You’re babbling, and I’ve no idea what you’re saying. My point is very simple: those adults who want to live with their parents have to live by their parents’ rules, no matter how foolish these rules may be. Lee wants the public to fund her art, but she won’t have the public regulate or control her art. She wants to have it both ways. She can’t. So let her get a real job, or let her take that Mall of America residency.

    This is why the right wants to cut the NEA: it’s not the money but the principle. Conservatives don’t want spoiled brats to take taxpayers’ money and then whine that their writing space isn’t quiet enough, especially when many of these conservatives are blue-collar workers who actually earn a living the hard way. If I were working in a factory 40 hours a week and then had to read Lee complaining about the inhumanity of having to clock in for a writing gig at a mall, I’d be calling my congressman immediately and ask him to axe the NEA.

    Besides, all that whiny “I need a safe, quiet space, complete with a stipend, so I can write” nonsense. What delicate flowers these MFA kids are! Let them work for a living. I’m not saying they have to go all out Eugene O’Neill or George Orwell and eat the wallpaper, but it won’t hurt them to earn a buck.

  17. Liam,

    Your arguments are boring and fatally unoriginal. You seem to belong to that group of people whose intellectual arsenal consists of about six buzzwords (such as “delicate flower”, “real job”, “safe space” – you forgot “snowflake” “politically correct” and “libtard”) which you rearrange to build whatever windmill it is you are chasing. This is why arts funding is necessary – critical, independent thought is important!

  18. Liam, I didn’t want my tax dollars to support the war in Iraq, or the massive expansion of the prison system, but they were used for those things and will continue to be funneled into similarly morally bankrupt enterprises whether I like it or not. So I’m comfortable with you inadvertently funding a painting or a novel that offends your sensibilities to the tune of two cents a year.

  19. Liam,

    As a writer, please direct me to all this sweet free money you speak of. I want to never work again!

    Oh, right. This is just bullshit you’re making up. Guess I’ll move back in with my fambly!

  20. I’m sorry, toad, if my reasoning is not up to your standards, but perhaps you could still try to understand my point, which so far has cruised over your head: public arts funding does not lead to that independent thinking you’re dreaming of because it comes with very tight strings attached. And if I may return the favor, “give more money to the arts” is itself somewhat boring and unoriginal. Perhaps “This is how more money would make the arts better” would be more interesting and original, but I’ve yet to see anyone make it. Care to try?

    Coulier: the free money I speak of is the money Lee wants the federal government to give her, the money that is supposed to save her from the horror of the mall residency.

    anon: my sensibilities, you may be surprised to note, are very similar to yours. But you don’t fix one giant evil–military and war–by sniveling about a far smaller evil not getting bigger.

    I urge all of you to take a look at the situation in Israel if you want to see what happens when artists clamor for state funding and the state says, “Here’s the money, and here are the strings. Knock yourselves out”. Google “Miri Regev” and you’ll see the NY Times article on the first page. This is exactly what you people are bringing us to: the arts serving the state and its wars, nationalism, racism, and militarism.

  21. Liam

    “public arts funding does not lead to that independent thinking you’re dreaming of because it comes with very tight strings attached.”

    This is just demonstrably false. I don’t know how to help you better understand this. For an introductory list of artists who have benefited from public funding, I would start with reading this article, particularly the 3rd to last paragraph.

    However, I think you would best benefit from a formal understanding of the NEA, specifically its grant program for writers. https://www.arts.gov/grants I suppose if submitting an application and, if selected, a few progress reports are “tight strings”, well, then, we have different definitions of “tight strings”.

  22. toad:

    The wind of condescension you keep breaking my way rings somewhat odorless when it comes from a commenter who consistently fails to understand what amounts to a very simple argument. No, the strings attached are not the application forms, but thanks for the informative link. Now take out that stick and read about Miri Regev and her attempt to subvert art to the service of nationalism, etc. It happens there and it could happen here, and it will if the NEA here is as strong (read: well-funded) as the Ministry of Culture is over there. Strings, see?

  23. Liam,

    So, let me get your “very simple argument”: the culture minister in a foreign country is a nationalist, which means if an analogous American cultural agency, which is .002% of the budget and on the chopping block, becomes too powerful (which it never has in its entire existence, no prominent politician has ever cared about, and no one is clamoring for anything different), the writers lucky enough to receive modest grants from this agency (who are by your own admission all lazy lefties) will be forced to churn out nationalist propaganda?

    Are those winds ringing stinky yet?

  24. Where did I say that all NEA grantees are lazy leftists? You’re incapable of arguing like an adult, so you make things up. You’re angry, so you shoot in all directions without reading the comments you’re responding to. I’m sorry, but your dispirited artist’s frustration is not my fault

    Have a nice weekend.

  25. “Let them work for a living”

    “Earn a buck”

    “Delicate flowers”

    “Get a real job”

    “Spoiled brats”


  26. My childish point is that NEA funding, and taxes in general, do not work the way you claim they do, and that your “aggressive arts funding leads to increased militarism” white-hot take is not a danger to this country. Have a nice weekend.

  27. You know, toad, I’m in such good mood this morning that I’m inclined to be nice even to you, and even after you’ve collected sentence fragments that were targeted at specific individuals and assigned them, on my behalf, to all NEA grantees.

    Whatever. I woke up today and discovered in my mailbox a note that my play had been accepted for production, even though I wrote it over nights, with airport-grade earmuffs to combat ambient noise, and with the horror of the visual clutter of power lines staring at me from across the street. So on this lovely Saturday* morning, I say, can’t we all just get along?

    Now, have a REALLY good weekend. I know I will.

    * Us working people assign a special meaning to that day. Ask around.

  28. I know a lot of people who work Saturdays; it’s not a special day. Liam, you romanticize too much.

  29. Liam, congratulations! Do tell where and when we can see your play.

    I must say, old chap, you are obsessed with work. You would be shocked to know that I, too, have a job. It’s really quite amazing, eh? Two people, with jobs. Not only that, I also manage to write in my free time, without a view, a thousand miles from NYC! It’s perfect! I don’t want or need any grants or residencies. I suppose the only difference between you and I is that I don’t expect a medal for it, and I don’t presume that my circumstances should apply to everyone else.

    Anyway, I’m off to seek out some “workers” with whom to discuss the concept of “Saturday”. I’m humbled by how much I have to learn. Cheers!

  30. @Steven Augustine

    “A system similar to a marginal and elitist cultural plutocracy evolves.”

    And where is it different? Osborne’s analysis makes for good paper and lousy policy, conflating as it does, artistic production with artistic performance.

    More “full-time opera houses” by a factor of 28? Means what? That America, not Germany, is the home of “conspicuous consumption”? That “there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing” as long as it’s opera? Or, to the point, that the world is in paradigm shift as a result of the cultural influence of German opera? Soldiers laying down their weapons because of the the 21st century equivalent of the Ring Cycle?

    We don’t even need to look at any statistics to see who’s going to hear all that opera performed in Die Muttersprache. We don’t even need to look.

    It’s all capital, art-loving friends. The only difference: who’s laundering the funds. Britons launder theirs through the National Lotto – 40-billion pound sterling per annum to be sure St Martin-in-the-Fields never fails to perform Bach at Christmas. Germans put the squeeze on poor EU relations to make sure every province has an “opera”. And Americans do what they do and still manage to lead the entire world (save China, who, admit it, is pirating American production) in books published. Are any of these models – indirect public tax, direct public tax, hybrid – ideal? The question should be more pragmatic: where is the good writing coming from? The era-defining visuals? The groundbreaking sound?


    Private residencies are a great thing, if you can lasso one, but the MoA residency sounds like a trainwreck. “The artist is given time to ‘social network'” and “scroll his work on a big screen in real time”? I live in the land of government funded art, and my experience is that THAT system attracts “artists” who are as adept at sniffing out grants as they are mediocre at “making art”. Liam has a point: you MAKE somebody contribute to support the arts, he’s going to assume some aspect, albeit tiny, of “the patron”. Under those conditions, the threat of self-censorship is ever lurking, and any artist who says it’s not at the back of his mind is fibbing.

  31. @Il’ja

    I’m not going to formulate a point-by-point rebuttal of an interrogation of someone else’s words (what’s in it for me?), the gist of those words being: a little more of America’s fiscal War Budget could and should go to support The Arts… I think it’s more useful to compare the America of the near, and almost-near, Past, to its Present, regarding the topic. Also, if we cast the net of this discussion too broadly (re: Capital, Capitalism, Capitalismitis and the CIA) we’ll ignite one of those raging off-piste fests, familiar from the days of yore (and is this topic/thread really worth that…?)

    (sidebar: Liam only has a point to the extent that Reaganite Reactionaries like Liam cowed the NEA into being the shriveled organ it is today, but read the excerpt, below, for more on that…)

    So, let’s focus on the controversial idea of Gov support for the Arts (however dirty the support-money is) and look back at the good old days, before the Reagan Revolution declared ketchup a vegetable and High Culture a drug in need of stricter regulation:

    “The NEA was a fundamental part of democracy’s expansion. Its Literature Program had two distinct but overlapping goals: to sponsor more exciting, experimental writing and to democratize the field of literary production. The fellowship program, founded in 1967, was the most important means it used to achieve both of these aims. Agency administrators recognized that writing fiction or poetry requires resources—time, money, childcare, travel—that few citizens could afford.

    “As poet and program director Carolyn Kizer put it, the fellowships to individual writers—totalling $205,000, roughly a quarter of the Literature Program’s budget in 1967—were designed to “buy time.” As Kizer’s words suggest, the NEA de-commodified time, granting it to writers who needed it most. Grant winners with dependents received more money than those without—this was especially important for women, who were often saddled with domestic work. Between 1967 and 1971, the NEA sent talent scouts around the country, looking for writers who might not have access to the traditional avenues for publication. “Discovery Grants” were awarded to these unknowns, including a young West Coast fiction writer and poet named Raymond Carver. With these efforts, the NEA reshaped literary production, transforming the conditions under which talented citizens lived and worked.

    “These state-funded writers, many from marginalized populations, experimented with literary form. The inaugural class of fellowship winners, who received two-year grants in 1967, included two socialist-feminist fiction writers, Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley. A former Young Communist, Olsen in particular revolutionized the writing and teaching of literature. Her fiction and essays about the American working class married unconventional, modernist form with radical leftist politics. In the years before and after she received the NEA grant, she clamored for revised university reading lists and increased financial support for women, writers of color, and members of the working class. She called these would-be writers the “silenced people” who, “consumed in the hard everyday essential work of maintaining human life,” rarely had time to produce creative work. How much great writing, she asked, has been lost to history? The NEA shared Olsen’s concern with amplifying historically silenced voices, just as it shared her belief that these voices would speak—would write—in radical, resonant ways.

    “For the NEA, this ambition led it to seek and support writers who lacked market appeal. In addition to granting fellowships to individual writers, the agency funded small, independent presses and avant-garde literary journals. When the agency compiled an anthology of American writing in 1968, it drew largely from the “little magazines,” literary journals that published work by young and unknown writers. One reviewer commented approvingly that the anthology mainly included “non-commercial” work, by fledging writers and by controversial figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). The NEA provided writers with several different ways of circumventing the literary marketplace, freeing them to write fiction and poetry that was difficult, politically radical, or both.

    “Despite its penchant for niche literature, the agency flourished during the 1970s. The number of grants awarded increased each year, as did the money for each creative writing fellowship. By October 1977 the agency’s budget had increased from $2.5 million to nearly $124 million, thanks largely to the politicking of chair Nancy Hanks. During these same years, the government provided direct grants to some of the nation’s most contentious and innovative writers, including John Ashbery, Charles Bukowski, and Ishmael Reed. The literary climate favored experimentation: the decade also saw the publication of Toni Morrison’s debut The Bluest Eye, a novel that used wordplay to critique racist standards of beauty, and the rise of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, an avant-garde, politically leftist movement that challenged the conventions of lyric poetry. Though the era had its share of battles (the deputy chair once had to visit the offices of forty-six members of Congress to explain why a seven-letter poem deserved $750 in public funds), the 1970s were a high point for the NEA and for experimental literature as well.”

    So far so good… until the good times hit a wall when, essentially, during the ’80s and ’90s…

    “the NEA met with increased resistance to its grant programs. The agency came under siege for funding (often indirectly) formally challenging, politically radical art by feminist, queer, and non-white Americans. With the support of fellow politicians from his own party, Republican Senator Jesse Helms launched a multi-year campaign against the NEA, charging it with funding “obscene” art by Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Karen Finley. The controversies surrounding these artists as well as several performance artists prompted the agency to experiment with a short-lived loyalty oath. More importantly, these difficult years led to the elimination of all grants to individual artists—except for grants to writers. Today, the NEA still awards $950,000 in individual fellowships for fiction, poetry, and translation, all of which are drawn from diminished public funds.”

    Even worse, in time:

    “Castigated by the right for its irrelevance and indecency, scorned by the left for its cowardice in the face of prejudice and supposed philistinism, the NEA has lately turned to the market for guidance and started placing a few safer bets. In its first decades, the agency served as a literary bellwether, funding unknown writers, often at early stages in their careers. Though it still funds such writers, it also funds successful writers, who receive their NEA grant after winning major awards or writing bestsellers; such winners were more rare in the 1970s. Recent grant winners have included Jonathan Franzen, following the publication of his prize-winning and best-selling The Corrections; Cristina García, after she wrote the National Book Award nominee Dreaming in Cuban; and Jhumpa Lahiri, who, by the time she received her fellowship, had already won a Pulitzer for Interpreter of Maladies, a book that sold 15 million copies worldwide. Lesser-known writers still dominate the awards list, but the presence of writers like Franzen insure the agency against charges of idiosyncrasy.

    “Money that goes to a best-selling writer is money diverted from the writers who need it most—young, marginalized, politically radical artists who may never find market success, or who may not even desire it. On the whole, today’s writers are less materially secure than those of previous generations. They are more likely to be saddled with student debt, from undergraduate as well as graduate education. They are less likely to find day jobs that provide enough income to pay off loans, never mind to support creative work. The “hard everyday essential work of maintaining human life” has only gotten harder today, when healthcare, housing, and other essentials have become unaffordable for many.”


    The entire article is interesting reading. The main point being: things weren’t always this way (this awful way), and Gov support of The Arts, handled tastefully (without an eye to The Bottom Line), can be a very good thing. Yes, American Civilization was once so advanced that they could decouple the notion of State Sponsored Support for the Arts from the Philistine requirement that the supported Artist becomes, therefore, a hireling of some sort. The monies involved, after all, were just crumbs from the table.


    PS “We don’t even need to look at any statistics to see who’s going to hear all that opera performed in Die Muttersprache.”

    The last time I attended the Opera, here, in Berlin, at least half of the people in the audience were wearing jeans; maybe a third couldn’t have gotten into a mid-level nightclub in Chicago, the way they were dressed. Cultural differences.

  32. “…at least half of the people in the audience were wearing jeans…”

    When a ticket for Tannhäuser at the Berlin Opera goes from 53€ to 169€ the fact that half an audience is in jeans – dressing down or cheap signalling? – tells us, in comparison, very little.

    What the left, (yes, I’m among it) doesn’t seem to grasp in this flareup over .01% of the budget comes across in both your cursory dismissal, i.e. “Cultural differences” and the article’s assumption that statements like “Money that goes to a best-selling writer is money diverted from the writers who need it most—young, marginalized, politically radical artists…” should just be accepted as fait accompli.

    Who needs it most? What does a “politically radical” writer sound like in 2017? Is it the same as in 1980? Who determines this? Has the environment of private arts funding / retreats / etc. improved or worsened since Reagan et al. took the knife to it? A writer who leans to the right should just shut up? Put down the pen because this is not intended for you? The particular taxonomy of this is getting dangerously close to a course of events that I think we both agree is unacceptable. But the perception is out there that the Left is unaware of how shrill, how fascist, how bankrupt it has begun to sound exactly because of issues like this one.

    To make this practical: WHICH of the following do you think Trump would appoint to head the NEA? Rush Limbaugh or Toni Morrison. And do you think that appointment would legitimize the work of the NEA? Would we be happier if he appointed Rush and then put $10B into the Agency?

    We are in agreement. That a nation with a $14T budget should ignore, or worse, attempt to commoditize, the humanities is disgraceful. Where we disagree – I assume – is that the bourgeois-flavored models of arts funding in Europe’s social democracies provide much, if any kind of workable example to follow.

  33. Clearly, anyone interested in seeing Opera cheaply in Berlin should consult me before consulting you, Il’ja; here’s one quick reference, slightly dated (2011):

    “Deutsche Oper:

    The West Berlin opera is a mammoth black box of acoustic wonder. Nosebleed seats are €14, and as the theater is much bigger than the other two, you may actually struggle to see everything from up there. Students under 30 get 50% off all tickets one week before the performance, and pay no more than €13.50 one hour before performance.

    Extra cheapo tip: Sometimes your opera ticket doubles as a public transportation ticket from and to the theater, so check the fine print on the ticket. If you have Berlin Welcome Card, you also get 25% off certain tickets at all of the three operas.”

    more recent info:

    “If you are under 30 years old and are planning on seeing several productions during your visit, you should invest in a Classiccard, a wonderful scheme that costs 15 euros to sign up for an annual membership. It entitles you to the best available seats at any of the three opera houses and various other orchestras and musical groups (the Berlin Philharmonic is the notable exception) one hour before curtain at the evening box office for 10 euros (again, cash only). 1 ticket per Classiccard unless a special offer is on.”

    “If you are sadly not 28 years old or under, you can still get into the Philharmonie either with a Podiumplatz, which is a seat on the onstage bleachers in back of the orchestra, or a Stehplatz, which is standing room. Of the two, the podium seats are easier to score, but they aren’t offered when a choir or extra-large / usual instrument ensemble is required. They go on sale at the beginning of the week for that weekend’s concert series (typically the same program will be given on Thursday, Friday and Saturday) and cost 16 euros.”

    How much does it cost to see the “Hulk vs Thor vs Trump” movie in Manhattan…?

    But, back to The Topic; here’s an article, from 2014, that doesn’t mention Opera:

    “Culturally Impoverished: US NEA Spends 1/40th of What Germany Doles Out for Arts Per Capita”

    “1. Germany: Germany’s cultural budget was approximately $1.63 billion USD in 2013. According to Ian Moss, research director of Fractured Atlas, Germany’s art funding in 2007 equated to roughly $20 per German citizen, which “dwarfs the 41 cents per red-blooded American provided by the NEA. What artist wouldn’t want to live there?” Moss told Huffington Post.”



    The vast majority of my friends and acquaintances are Expat Artists, enjoying the superior conditions, for Artists, over here.

    Even my health insurance (which is *amazing*) is special health insurance for Artists; incredibly cheap, with access to absolutely topnotch care (our Daughter, who was born in a high-tech birthing salon hot tub, before we all spent the night in a private birthing suite, cost me no more than the equivalent of 200 dollars being born, including months of birthing classes and a follow-up house call from the doctor!). This is not an abstract or hypothetical debate, for me. I lived (all over) the US my first 30 years, and I’ve lived in several countries in the EU thereafter, and the reality of “State Sponsorship for the Arts” in the US has to be examined through the dirty lens of the US’ Gulag (or cattle farm) mentality when it comes to the 99%.

    Not that creeping NeoLiberalization isn’t trying to degrade the rest of the West to the same Feudal standards….

  34. But to circle back to the question of private sector funding for the Arts, and the M.o.A.’s generous (and typical) offer to some lucky Writer to be a sideshow attraction at one of Mammon’s bloodiest Colosseums for a working week…

    ““The Winner’s ongoing work may be displayed in almost-real time on a large monitor at the workspace. The work product may scroll continuously throughout the day for passersby to view.”

    How could writing, produced under such conditions, be anything other than cat shit in a sealed baggie on a hissing radiator?

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