Economics, Politics, and Arts Funding

Graduate School – GWU February 2013

            This article by Doug Sonntag, Dance Director at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), describes the impact that the federal government had on dance in the United States. He describes the start of the NEA and illustrates the agency’s primary functions, areas of focus, and some of the specific success stories that had long-term positive ramifications on the field of “American concert dance”. Mr. Sontag begins with a short tale of famed European ballerina Fanny Essler’s visit to the United States in 1840. He points out that it took another century before this apparently spectacular introduction to dance would take an effect in America. In reading the initial paragraphs, I am reminded of just how young the profession of dance in America really is. Citing the “dance boom” from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s that occurred in relation to the prolific support of the NEA, Mr. Sontag makes the case that the Arts Endowment was greatly responsible for the development of dance as a profession, as a business, and as a cultural expression. I do believe he is right. However, my perspective as a dance artist coming of age post “dance boom” conjures an argument that the NEA may have created a monster that it could not contain. The NEA has surely been a catalytic force in creating a professional dance field, but was the field accidentally manufactured in an unsustainable way?

            “The Arts Endowment understood that to help dance assume a prominent place in American life required more than distributing money to existing organizations and dance professionals. The field needed to collect and analyze information in order to find better ways of understanding the obstacles to success. Prior to 1965, dance existed with almost no sense of itself as a recognized cultural force, and participants had no venue in which to elevate their local concerns into a national conversation. The very existence of the Arts Endowment marked a significant step forward in the field’s consolidation. It was, in effect, a de facto national service organization, a central source of communication for all interested parties.”

            For me, the quoted paragraph above describes the most enduring impact the NEA had on the development of dance as a field. Serving as a site for connectivity and communication allowed the field to recognize itself. Disparate artists would come to know each other and the agency would hear concerns from the ground; how the field was functioning and what support was really needed. There is a later sentence stating how the grant panels unintentionally served as “veritable think tanks”. These panels became a structure under which dance artists came together to evaluate work and initiate conversation from within the field about the field. These introductions of dance artist to dance artist, the sharing of ideas and questions, and the cross-pollination of inspiration and creative process have had a lasting impact greater than the direct financial support given.

            The sentence indicating that it would take more than money to make dance take a “prominent place in American life” resounds. Has dance taken such a prominent place? I applaud the NEAs early recognition that it takes more than money to make culture stick, but according to a 2008 study by the NEA itself, dance comes in only above opera in audience attendance. The NEA succeeded in making dance more visible yes, but prominent over other aspects of American culture, no. The prominence of dance in relation to the other art forms supported by the NEA also pales. Theater and music, for example, have commercial tangents that generate energy and money around their fields as a whole. Theater has “the movies” and music has “pop”, which are giant rushing rivers that create tiny rivulets that flow back into the lesser prominent aspects of each field. Dance has not carved out a commercial stance that can compare. And commercialism equals prominence in American culture*.

            Reading this text conjures the statement “if you give a man a fish he eats for a night, if you teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime”. I would correlate “give” with subsidy, and “teach” with earning. The NEA did a remarkable job from a certain point of view. The agency succeeded in spreading the gospel of dance throughout the country and had an enormous impact on select artists who would become the foundation for the survival methods of the “concert dance companies”. But in reading this I start to sense a self-fulfilling prophecy that the NEA unintentionally devised. The decline of the “dance boom” was inevitable unless NEA support would have continued to grow in direct relation to the expansion of the field that the NEA was generating. Though the impetus was to expand the field, they did not predict how vast the field would become. The notion of Capitalism (continuous growth) imposed on the arts is often problematic and cannot work unless there is equal growth in demand for the supply. While audiences for dance did grow, the audiences never got big enough to truly sustain the continuous growth of the field. The growth was subsidized from the beginning, became reliant on that subsidy and no real prominent commercial arm developed to assist. The supply was outgrowing the demand.

            The “dance boom” and the NEA’s rise and fall parallel my own life; the first dance panel met in 1966, the year I was born, and the “dance boom” was declared over in 1989, the year I graduated from college prepared to launch my own dance career. The first time I called the NEA, in early 1990 I think, to request an application for their Individual Artist Fellowship, the person on the phone informed me that the program had closed earlier that week. Next, I slaved over an application for the USIA, a federal agency I had learned about as a dancer in the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company that supported international tours for American companies. I turned in my application only to receive a letter soon after stating that they weren’t funding tours anymore, or were taking a hiatus. That they were not giving grants at the moment, but thank you for your application. It was in my “Survival as an Artist” class during my last semester of college that I was taught to submit grants to the federal, state, and local agencies and that I should become a 501c3 non-profit company and get a strong board of directors together because this was how I was going to get my work funded. My personal experiences quickly showed that that advice was perhaps not going to serve me.       

           I understand that this procedure was recommended because it had been the working model for the previous generation of choreographers and dancers. But I was joining the field at the very moment the “dance boom” was coming to a screeching end. The stack of fish that the “dance boom” generation(s) had been grabbing from (the beloved “dance boom” that had been created by and modeled after the NEA agenda) had been depleted. My generation had to build fishing poles and learn how to fish. And quick.

*It seems to me that American culture can only be described as “popular culture”. There can be no other unifying culture due to the mash-up of cultures that this country consists of.