KCAC Forum Magazine Summer 1993
ARTS ENVIRONMENT N THE CLINTON ERA
“Hostile and Violent.” That’s the way George Thorn, co-director of Art Action Research and Director of the Graduate Program in Arts Administration at Virginia Tech in Blackburg, Va., described the current environment for the arts in our country during his presentation to the recent Missouri Arts Council conference.
After spending four days with artists and arts administrators at the Missouri Arts Council Conference “Next in the Arts” (held May 16-17 St. Louis, Mo.) and the National Association of Artists’ organizations of the Midwest Conference (held May 21-22, Chicago, Ill.) I’d have to say most the participants agree with his assessment.
Even the most optimistic feel that change for the better is still a long way off. The economy of the 1980s and early 1990s has taken its toll with many art organizations caught in the fall-out of severe cuts in state and local funding to the arts. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA’s) willingness to censor artists rather than support freedom of expression and its own panel process has created an overwhelming in the field about the future role of this once revered federal agency. And while no one expected President Clinton to make culture his number one priority, it was hoped that the “bully pulp” of the presidency would be used to lift the air of hostility and suspicion that has settled around the arts. Instead, Clinton has delayed appointing a strong chairperson to lead the NEA through its re-authorization this summer, and what is worse, has chosen to appeal Judge Tashima’s 1992 ruling that found the NEA decency clause violated the First and Fifth Amendments. The fresh air we had hoped for turned out to be more of the same.
And in Missouri, the state legislature’s recent move to ban public nudity is another indication of the desire of government to regulate and abridge our civil rights rather than protect and preserve them.
Perhaps, as artists we have grown a bit cavalier about the suspicion and disdain our chosen profession brings us, relishing even in the outsider status it affords. But the status quo is every bit as hostile and damaging to individual artists as it is to arts organizations. Today most artists cannot expect to make a livable wage, or have the luxury of health insurance, sick leave, or retirement benefits. It is not surprising that many leave the field, taking their unique expression out of the public dialogue forever.
But artists want to have a positive impact in their communities and in the nation’s culture and demonstrate leadership and courage when the arts and artists have been attacked. When the Corcoran Gallery bowed to political pressure and would not exhibit the Mapplethorpe retrospective, the Washington Project for the Arts exhibited the work. To bring attention to the AIDS crisis, Visual Aids started the red ribbon campaign. And the National Association of Artists’ Organizations initiated the lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the decency clause of the 1990 NEA re-authorization legislation. These are just a few acts by artists and their organizations, many other choices in defense of
culture and freedom of expression are made daily.
The artistic climate in our country is not going to change to one more favorable to arts and culture unless all artists and supporters of the arts take an active role. We must use every means available to us to inform the public of the life-affirming value of the arts. We must tell them even difficult expressions inform and enlarge our understanding of what it is to be human. Judge Tashima stated, “The right of artists to challenge conventional wisdom and values is a cornerstone of artistic and academic freedom.” Unless we support that freedom, the arts will lose their ability to illuminate our lives.
When I go into artist-run spaces around the country I see vibrant viable works of contemporary artistic expression. We must protect this expression, these venues, our culture.