Public funding for the arts is a mess. No one can agree on what art is “worthy” of public funds. No one can figure out how to effectively measure success. And everyone is cranky about it. It’s time for a new model, one in which Public Funders do not attempt to be arbiters of taste, but rather strive to be providers of access.
To this end, I think the National Endowment for the Arts should be modeled after the New York City Parks Department. Just as the NYC Parks Department maintains public spaces which encourage and support relaxation, recreation, and fresh air, the National Endowment for the arts should maintain public spaces which encourage and support art-making. I imagine mixed-use buildings peppering the United States with large open spaces and small sound-proof rooms, tables and tools, supplies and equipment. I imagine these buildings and their contents are managed and maintained by a diverse team of experts and non-experts, similar to the team that cares for NYC’s public parks. I imagine that this team, and the equipment and buildings under their care, could be financially anchored by public funds, yet augmented by private funds, also mirroring the current structure funding many NYC parks.
Such a structure provides significant benefits, and avoids many of the pitfalls which plague current arts funding. It would increase access to resources for art-making, and it would alleviate the pretense that there are metrics for aesthetics. The success of the funds disbursed through this structure would be determined based on use, not acclaim. This model would also foster innovation by providing more art-making tools and spaces to more artists and potential artists, without stipulating the nature of the work to be created. Plus, it would create jobs and encourage community engagement, allowing local communities to define the resources most important to them, and adapt their public art spaces accordingly, just as communities often shape the use and structure of their parks through conservancies, sports organizations, bird-watching clubs, etc.
Most importantly, modeling the NEA after the NYC Parks Department would foster a connection to the arts that is a vibrant aspect of daily life, just like the trees lining the sidewalk. Our National Endowment for the Arts must become an ego-less organization in service to the widespread availability of art-making resources for all Americans. It must designate spaces for this purpose, which are protected and permanent. It must allocate its resources to care for these protected spaces and allow the arts in America to thrive within them.