"I want [American] athletes and artists to be total international badasses."
-Rachel Maddow, in an LA Times article asking various entertainers, artists, athletes, and other public figures (I don't want to include Ann Coulter in any of those categories) what they would do if they ran the NEA.
It's an interesting range of opinions. Bill Maher would abolish it; Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Tom Hayden would replicate what FDR did with the New Deal, asking artists to catalog what is happening in the country today.
I would direct more of the funding straight into school, particularly elementary schools. I would give some funding for individual artists to utterly non-controversial people, like quilters. For artists that create art with a potential payoff, I would not give them grants, I would make investments. I would offer them funding in return for an equity stake in their project. Any profits that are made from these investments would be returned to the funding pot.
For example, J.K. Rowling won a grant for 8,000 pounds from the Scottish Arts Council so she could continue writing the Harry Potter books. Imagine if they received even 2% of her royalties? That would probably fund the Scottish Arts Council for the next decade.
There are several elements of this debate that are always overlooked. We already subsidize the arts in lots of ways. The fact that contributions to arts organizations are tax deductible generates far more income for the arts than the NEA ever will. The same is true of contributions to educational organizations. Everybody in film school pays for their thesis project films with charitable contributions.
Corporations also subsidize the arts in indirect ways. Lots of movie and TV stars appear on stage in live theater productions. Financially, this makes no sense. Gwyneth Paltrow can make more money in one day on a film set than she can make in a month on Broadway. Of course, if Gwyneth Paltrow is in a play on Broadway, the play will make more money than it will with a non-Oscar winning actress, so it's great for the play's producers. But why does Gwyneth Paltrow or Al Pacino or Laurence Fishburne do theater? Because it's much more fun, and sometimes much more artistically rewarding, than a film. An actress on a film set may be there for 12 hours a day, but will probably only record one minute of dialogue, and may actually only work for a couple of hours a day - the rest is spent setting up the lights, the cameras, the set, etc. In theater, actors spent most of their time actually acting.
Try this experiment: walk through a large bookstore, say Borders or Barnes and Noble. Almost all of them have pictures on the cover. Artists were paid to create those. Many of those artists will take the money they make from designing book jackets and create their own art. Sort of like Gwyneth Paltrow.
And it isn't just the Gwyneth Paltrows and Jeremy Pivens in the movie and TV industries who will take advantage of their large paychecks to fulfill their own artistic ambitions. See the list of 500 people in the credits in your average blockbuster? A quarter of those people may have screenplays they're trying to sell. Some of them might be aspiring directors who have directed short films. Some of them probably play in a band.
So that's what I would do if I ran the NEA: give money to museums and orchestras, the kind of groups that benefit a large number of people, and then give money to kids, because the return on investment when you inspire a child to be more creative is incalculable.
But I wouldn't worry too much about the adults. In a world of 500 cable channels, satellite radio, hundreds of millions of Web sites and cheap video cameras, I'm not worried about the state of the arts in the United States. I agree with Rachel Maddow, but I think the best thing the government can do promote the arts in this country is insure that we have the freedom necessary to express ourselves, keep the economy going, make sure every kid gets the best possible education, and then get the hell out of the way.