Art Works Blog

The NCA at the NEA

Rocco greets NCA member Terry Teachout before the start of the public session of the 169th meeting of the National Council on the Arts. Photo by Kathy Plowitz-Worden

Friday was a bit of a gloomy day here in Washington, DC, but things were pretty lively inside the Old Post Office where the National Council on the Arts gathered for the public session of its 169th meeting. The session opened with the swearing in of jazz musician, bandleader, and composer Irvin Mayfield, the NCA?s newest member. (We?ll hear from Maestro Mayfield in his own words in a future blog post.) Presentations included an appreciation of the late Bess Lomax Hawes---the agency?s first director of folk and traditional arts---by current Director of Folk and Traditional Arts Barry Bergey; an overview of the findings of the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts by Director of Research and Analysis Sunil Iyengar, and a presentation by NEA Chair Rocco Landesman of ?postcards? from the Art Works tour.

Bess Lomax Hawes, whom Rocco dubbed the NEA?s ?patron saint for innovation and forward looking thinking? joined the agency in 1977 and stayed with us until her retirement in 1992. As recounted by Barry, she brought to the NEA an activist spirit, boundless energy, and the accumulated wisdom of a long career as performer, songwriter, author, documentarian, educator, and ?the woman who taught all of California to play the guitar.? Among the anecdotes he shared, Barry remembered that---as Bess used to tell it---on her first day at the NEA she ?sat down and thought to myself, Bess, you better work fast. You better think what you want to do and get on with it . . . . There isn?t anything constant but art and trouble.? What Bess got on with was tirelessly advocating for the importance of the folk and traditional arts, right alongside fine arts such as opera and dance, and the urgent need for the NEA to provide grant support to keep these important aspects of American cultural heritage alive. You can learn more about Bess Lomax Hawes and her impact on the folk and traditional arts in the U.S. here.

Sunil Iyengar reported on the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in Arts (SPPA), which was released in November 2009. Conducted in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau five times since 1982, the SPPA is the largest periodic survey of adult participation in arts and cultural activities, with a sample size of 18,000. Sunil announced that, for the first time, the NEA has posted the survey?s raw data as well as our analyses of it on the NEA website. He also commented on changes to the survey questions in response to new technology and data from previous surveys. While the survey revealed a decline in arts participation by Americans, council member Terry Teachout, who has written about the SPPA findings for the Wall Street Journal, emphasized that the report should be a call to arms for artists: ?Every artist must be an advocate. Every artist must make the case for art. They must be their own advocates and build their audiences.? The council also discussed what implications the growth in arts participation via media might have in terms of standards of artistic quality.

Finally, Rocco shared highlights from the Art Works tour to date. In a short film about his initial outing to Peoria, Illinois, the chairman noted that his intention was ?to listen, be educated, and find out what?s going across the country.? Here are some more highlights from Art Works---Peoria.

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Rocco also explained that he?d come to understand that in order for communities to be successful at community revitalization through the arts, three factors have to be present: a vibrant arts tradition, a committed private sector, and a local political structure that ?gets it.? In response to a question on the biggest lesson he?s learned, Rocco had a two-fold answer: ?There is definitely an arts crisis, a funding crisis, but at the same time we?re also seeing tremendous resiliency among arts organizations. They may be in real financial distress, but they?re still surviving. They?re finding ways to hang in there and survive.?

An archived version of the public meeting will soon be available on the NEA website. Check back with the blog to find out when it?s available.

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