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Keynote Bummer

Former NEA head Bill Ivey has news for the nonprofit arts community: your era is over.



Bill Ivey

When: Tue 1/9, 3 PM

Where Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State

Price $10, free for IAA members

Info 312-855-3105,

More Reservations strongly encouraged

When pooh-bahs of the nonprofit arts community gather for the annual meeting of the Illinois Arts Alliance next week they may be in for a wake-up call. The IAA, created to champion their cause with legislators, is bringing in Bill Ivey, who chaired the National Endowment for the Arts from 1998 to 2001, as guest speaker. Now head of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, Ivey published a paper two years ago in which he owned up to developing a "queasy" feeling toward the end of his NEA stint, which might help explain why he walked away from it eight months early.

According to Ivey's paper, "America Needs a New System for Supporting the Arts," which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that rotten feeling in his gut was brought on by the "disconnect" between the NEA, which concentrated on moneygrubbing for nonprofits, and the reality of the larger arts world, which was being transformed by the influence of big business on government policies. While broadcast stations were being consolidated and copyright terms were being extended by 20 years, Ivey says, the cultural community fiddled as Rome burned, narrowly focusing on nonprofits and overlooking the "interventions that were really shifting our cultural landscape." He's come to the conclusion that the system by which we've promoted the arts in this country for the last half century--the very system that was once his charge--has run its course. Illinois' nonprofit leaders are showing up for a meeting at which they'll likely be told their game is obsolete.

Ivey, an ethnomusicologist, teacher, and writer, ran the nonprofit Country Music Foundation for 25 years before his appointment to the NEA, but his discomfort with the nonprofit sector (which he characterizes as isolated and arrogant) isn't surprising. During his years at the CMF he was immersed in the business end of the music industry, working closely with professional songwriters and musicians. His stint with the NEA came after a decade of conservative assaults had successfully tamed and nearly destroyed the once cutting-edge agency. The days of funding Serrano's Piss Christ, Mapplethorpe's erotic nudes, or the work of any individual artist, for that matter, were over.

Considered a populist (because of his country music affiliation) and a business-savvy pragmatist, Ivey held the agency to its newly straight and narrow path, the rationale being that any NEA was better than none at all. In his first year on the job he personally canceled $7,500 in funding that had been approved for the bilingual American edition of the children's storybook The Story of Colors after a reporter pointed out that it had been written by Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. (The book was subsequently issued with the help of the Lannan Foundation.) Ivey's strategic plan for the NEA, "Challenge America," emphasized education, historic preservation, and community partnerships, and saw to it that money, rather than piling up in Soho, went to the underserved sticks.

Now Ivey argues that arts organizations, both nonprofit and commercial, have the same goal--nurturing and producing excellent work--and should be joining forces. Instead, he says, they're still operating under a plan developed by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations in the late 50s and early 60s that "serves only the nonprofit part of America's complicated arts system." That plan, devised primarily by "big-city philanthropists" who believed the public needed greater access to high culture, called for a system of matching grants that would enable cultural nonprofits to bring the "refined arts" to the great unwashed. It succeeded beyond anyone's dreams; the foundations that created the system handed it off to other NGOs and, ultimately, to government agencies like the NEA as well as state and local arts councils.

After that, growth was phenomenal. Ivey cites statistics (from Americans for the Arts) that show the number of nonprofit arts organizations nationwide jumping from 7,700 in 1965 to more than 40,000 in 2005; symphony orchestras, among the most elite and expensive organizations, increased from 60 to more than 350 over roughly the same period. And some highly effective strategies--educational outreach, positioning art as an economic engine for communities--were developed to help fuel that growth. Ivey maintains that employment in the nonprofit art world outstripped the commercial, while nonprofits came to think of their "mission-driven" selves as "the only significant source of quality arts programming." That's a delusion, he writes: "Many of our most highly regarded arts activities are almost exclusively organized for profit."

But over the last decade or so, nonprofits have "grown bigger without getting richer." Ivey says government support, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 1992, and the share of private philanthropy going to the arts has dropped by nearly a third since then. The nonprofit arts sector now looks like "an overbuilt industry" with "depressed wages," a "lack of capital," and "defensive, conservative business practices." So far its leaders have responded by searching for ways to pump more money into the same old system, but Ivey says it's "time to stop thinking that the potential for societal support for the current nonprofit arts agenda is limitless....It's time to declare victory and move on."

When Ivey tries to suggest what might come next, however, it reads a little like a page from the old playbook. We need to "draw a bigger, more-inclusive map of America's arts system, redefine the public interest in relation to the arts," and partner nonprofits with funders, government, and industry. He also foresees a future in which for-profit arts entities would compete with nonprofits for foundation money--a scenario in which it's hard to imagine nonprofits prevailing. On the other hand, in a more recent Chronicle paper, "Cultural Renaissance or Cultural Divide?" (published in May), Ivey and coauthor Steven J. Tepper suggest that after a century of professionalization, the arts are poised to return to a do-it-yourself model. Then, they say, art will once again be something the public (at least the privileged public) practices rather than merely supports. If Ivey's right in either case, there's radical change ahead for the IAA and most of its members.

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