As an intern for the National Endowment for the Arts’ Music program the summer of 1995, I clearly recall sitting in an agency–wide meeting in which Jane Alexander informed staff members that many of them would no longer be employed. The reason for the massive layoff had to do with a 40 percent decrease in funding, thanks to the histrionics of Republicans in Congress.
At the time I loosely understood it had to do with objectionable art; Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano were often used as examples. I had heard comments made by Congressional representatives as they accused the NEA of funding art that was obscene. Regardless of the fact that the NEA did not directly fund these artists, they took Piss Christ and the A Perfect Moment exhibition and ran with it, greatly exaggerating what they considered to be offensive art funded by the government.
Long story short, after working in the arts and humanities for 17 years, I wrote my master’s thesis in communication regarding the activities that led to the 1995 meeting and funding situation. Focusing on the 1989 efforts of Pat Robertson and Donald Wildmon, I studied their communication activities (newspaper ads, direct mail pieces, editorials, etc) and attempted to determine how they created a nationwide social controversy regarding arts funding. Titled “Tonight It’s Government Funded: A Rhetorical Analysis of Manufactured Social Controversy and Government Funding of the Arts,” my thesis opened up a new world for my research as I continue with my education to pursue a doctoral degree, this time focusing on the art of the North Dakota oil fields.
I have always love art in its many forms—visual, dance, theatre, music, literature—and spending the summer of 1995 working with the talented staff and panelists of the NEA was an experience I’ll never forget. It opened my mind to the variety of opinions people have for/against art and allowed me to continue my education focusing on art and communication. Would I have followed this path without my internship? I can’t say, but I do know it changed my life.