Die With Dignity Or Fight With All You've Got Til the Bitter End?
"Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways - Chardonnay in one hand - chocolate in the other - body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming 'WOO HOO, What a Ride!" ---Fake Chinese Doctor.OK, so one of the largest, most successful, and most celebrated responses to the Great Depression in the US was the creation of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), which had employed millions of Americans for 8 years. Disbanded when WWII ushered in a new era of high employment, the legacy of the WPA is still there for all Americans to enjoy in the form of parks and roads, as well as some truly fantastic art. The spirit of the WPA is well captured in this description of the artworks from this era that have survived until today:
They stand as a reminder of a time in our country’s history when dreams were not allowed to be destroyed by economic disaster. [emphasis mine]Flash forward to the Great Recession and what is the visionary response to ensure dreams are not destroyed by the current economic disaster? It's summarized in this headline from artinfo.com:
New National Arts Index's Advice to Struggling Nonprofits? "Die With Dignity"Compare the values that led to the creation of the WPA...
The administration's decision to replace relief with the WPA reflected the values of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his relief administrator, Harry Hopkins. Both believed that relief demoralized the unemployed and produced a condition of dependency. [emphasis mine]...to those used to conclude that non-profits who are struggling should "die with dignity":
In one of the toughest budgetary climates in modern history, and amid renewed threats from Congressional Republicans to eliminate government art support, the advocacy group Americans for the Arts rolled out its National Arts Index on Monday. Essentially, the measure aims to speak for the arts in a language that even complete philistines might understand, offering a method to track the health of the creative economy in a way that's similar to how Gross Domestic Product tracks the growth of the global economy in general. [emphasis mine]The Americans for the Arts report's executive summary focuses a great deal on the "demand-side and supply-side solutions to be considered."
But not just the language is different now than it was in 1935, the landscape obviously is too. Even Rocco Landesman, the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts, the one person in government you would expect to advocate for more support for nonprofit arts organizations, is suggesting we have too much of it:
The Republican Study Committee is gunning for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, having announced a plan last month that would eradicate the 45-year-old organization. But possible extinction isn't the only thing the NEA has to worry about these days. The arts agency's chairman Rocco Landesman has been shocking and enraging people from the right and the left, proposing that the demand for arts organizations (specifically struggling theaters) no longer matches the supply — in effect, that a surplus of arts groups that lack audiences could and should be pruned.Landesman's argument, like that of Americans for the Arts, stems from some cold, hard number crunching:
"There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists. Do we need three administrators for every artist?" he asks. "Resident theaters in this country began as collectives of artists. They have become collectives of arts administrators. Do we need to consider becoming more lightly institutionalized in order to get more creativity to more audiences more often?"Landesman's proposal seem to boil down to the suggestion that already poorly paid arts administrators of the country should be fired and that artists should take over those jobs and (presumably) work for free (in addition to the other jobs they already have to keep to continue their practice, that is). Again, compare the rationales and values of these two economic hardship responses. FDR was concerned about the "demoralization of the unemployed." Landesman and Americans for the Arts are concerned about improving efficiencies. Their proposals would result in more even people joining the unemployed at a time when jobs are still very hard to come by. Different values for different times, I guess.
Personally, the suggestion that the arts organizations slated for euthanasia (by whom and by what criteria remains to be seen, but if how the Smithsonian capitulated to the GOP is any indication, we're all screwed) should go quietly...with dignity...reflects a total misunderstanding of what drives artists, what drives those who pour their sweat and hopes into creating an arts organization, and what drives those of us who champion them. None of what they do has ever been accomplished taking the easy route. This is not a crowd you'll easily get to march sheeplike to slaughter. If they're gonna pull the plug, I say go out with a bang! You've got nothing to lose at this point. End with the productions or exhibitions you always wanted to do, but were always afraid would upset your government funders.
Remember, dignity isn't something others can bestow on you. It's something you have to claim for yourself.