Cultural Triage and The Demise of the Non Profit

This feature was originally reprinted in ART PAPERS July/August 1991, Vol. 15, issue 4.

Most discussions about the current “crisis” in the arts focus on the highly publicized at- tacks waged by right wing religious and political figures against a handful of artists and exhibition spaces. There is, however, a wider set of forces at work that, if less dramatic than Donald Wildmon’s direct-mail terrorism, may ultimately prove to be far more harmful. This larger crisis is the product of three interrelated factors:


First, the economic impact of the recession which has resulted in reduced levels of earned income for arts organizations (subscriptions, admissions, etc.) coincident with increased operating expenses and overhead costs (e.g., the recent jump in non-profit postal rates). Thus exhibition spaces such as Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions have been forced to cut back hours and services, while media arts centers such as the Collective for Living Cinema (and even commercial galleries such as Gracie Mansion) have closed altogether.


Second, those problems associated with widespread art funding cuts at the national and state level, and the procedural reforms instituted at the National Endowment for the Arts as a result of the 1991 appropriations bill. State arts councils around the country are experiencing budget cuts in the 20-50% range, and the Endowment’s own budget has been reduced and reapportioned to meet the extra administrative costs imposed by split panels and other “reform” measures.


And third, the current and future “chilling effect” on the exhibition, distribution, and reproduction of visual art due to the 1990 Child Protection Restoration and Penalties Enhance- ment Act, which makes it a felony to reproduce any image of a sexual encounter without exhaustive records identifying the artist and the models involved (the CPA is currently being challenged in court). Along with this is the increasing incidence of commercial presses refusing to print “controversial” materials for both publications and exhibition announcements (New Art Examiner, Felix, Aperture, Artpaper [MN]).


Taken together these factors have been most devastating for “alternative” or “non-profit” organizations. Small-to-mid sized institutions often don’t have the critical mass needed for full- time development personnel, so already overtaxed staff members are forced to work extra hours simply trying to keep up funding cuts. In addition, non-profit organizations are budgeted very tightly and can’t sustain the cash-flow disruptions caused by reductions in funding and changes in funding policies, not to mention postal rate increases, the cost of switching to a less conservative printer, etc.


This stratum of non-profit, “alternative” organizations was brought into existence by the NEA during the early-to-mid ’70s as part of the residual participatory liberalism of the Great Society. The NEA effectively enfranchised a network of media centers, exhibition and performance spaces, print shops, publications, and educational programs. While few if any of these organizations depend entirely on the NEA for survival, Endowment support was instrumental in their establishment and remains a key component of their unearned-income base, as well as providing leverage for other funding sources.


The “managerial” class of administrators, curators, editors, teachers, and artists who took advantage of this patronage saw an opportunity to challenge mainstream or commercial art/ culture by supporting work that spoke to so-called “marginal” constituencies, dealt with subject matter that was ignored in mainstream art, was formally experimental, etc. Their efforts were premised on the belief that the art market tends to be inherently conservative and exclusionary, and that it was important to support the creation, distribution, and analysis of challenging work outside of a market apparatus.


It is a situation that bears some resemblance to government support of grassroots urban activist organizations in the mid-to- late ’60s through the Office of Economic Opportunity. “Community Action Programs” (CAPs) used federal monies to help public housing tenants organize for better living conditions, welfare recipients to demand greater benefits, etc. CAPS succumbed to conservative attacks during the Nixon administration under the general rubric, “no regime ever financed its own opposition.” It has taken a bit longer, but conservatives in Congress have finally figured out that a segment of the NEA’s budget (albeit a microscopic one) is going to support art that is openly critical of “dominant” (Christian, white, male, hetero- sexual, capitalist) values.


This analogy seems particularly apt in light of a recent Heritage Foundation position paper on public arts funding (reprinted in the National Association of Artists’ Organizations Bulletin, January 1991) which suggests that the “entitlements of the NEA reward indolent artists and argues for the art market as the ultimate arbiter of quality: “a free market is the most reliable guarantor of excellence since it fosters competition. Government policies that hamper competition, as the NEA does, therefore are not likely to foster excellence.”


Whether deliberately or not, procedural reforms at the Endowment are collaborating with the cultural triage discussed above. The Media Arts program recently “divested” itself of smaller non-profit media arts centers by setting up a re-granting program (the Media Arts Development fund) through the National Alliance of Media Arts Centers. Aside from raising questions about how a funding agency can also function effectively as a service organization for the media arts field, the $10,000 ceiling on MAD fund grants is only half the amount that several organizations received previously from the NEA. One long-time media center in the Bay area that had received NEA support for the past several years was denied NAMAC/ MAD funding at the same time that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was awarded a $750,000 Challenge grant to endow a “Media Arts Department.” The Endowment appears to be reducing the number of $10-25,000 grants (which traditionally supported the smaller non-profits), and moving to higher, more competitive funding levels. In addition, there seems to be a switch from general operating support to project support, which has the advantage of letting the Endowment know precisely what it is funding before it awards a grant.


Although the NEA’s procedural changes are at an early stage, the emerging pattern is clear: a shift of funding upwards to larger, more established arts organizations, leaving the smaller non-profits to fight with each other over whatever foundation support can be found. There will clearly be a shake-out in the next few years. In New York, where the state arts council’s budget may be cut by as much as 56%, the attrition of small and mid-sized arts organizations will be devastating.


In the case of publications, already the problem child in the Endowment family, the situation is no better. The Visual Arts program plans to dismantle the Visual Artists Forums category in which most publications are funded, shunting them into the crowded Visual Artists Organizations category. As with the MAD fund transition there are promises of damage control from the Endowment’s staff, but it seems inevitable that publications can expect less support. Some publications will close entirely, others will be forced to cut pages, or shift to bi-monthly or quarterly publication. There will probably be an increase in “special issues” published in conjunction with symposia or exhibitions in order to piggyback on other funding. As a result publications will be less able to respond quickly to news and events affecting the visual and media arts fields, and less effective as networks for communication and exchange. The long-term result will be to make non-profit art publications more like academic journals (something which the NEA’s move toward project support encourages). In the final analysis budget cuts, procedural reforms, and the other factors discussed above may well accomplish what Jesse Helms and Donald Wildmon have been unable to: the silencing of the alternative exhibition and performance spaces, media arts centers, and publications that have nurtured and supported vital, oppositional art in this country over the last two decades.

Grant Kester was the coeditor of Afterimage, a non-profit publication of the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York.