The National Endowment for the Arts has released its 1990 annual report. So have the various state arts councils, including the Illinois Arts Council (IAC). The Lyric Opera of Chicago received a $1 million grant and a couple of hundred thousand for spare change, all of which will supposedly “make a major long term commitment to American and European opera of our time.” (Why American taxpayers should want to subsidize European opera wasn’t addressed.) The Lyric Opera also received $169,700 from the lAG, making the whole package just shy of a million and a half.
I’m always fascinated by what my colleagues in the Chicago arts community have managed to skim from federal, state, and local cultural coffers. The 1990 NEA grant to Chicago artist Jacqueline Foster for $10,000 reads as follows: “To support a project to teach low-income, inner-city residents the fundamentals of interior design so that they can make improvements in their homes.” There is also the Randolph Street Gallery, an annual NEA/IAC favorite. This year the Randolph Street Gallery grabbed a mere $157,220 from the combined agencies. The gallery likes to present itself as an “alternative space,” something a bit to the left of the crass commercial mainstream. It’s located in a neighborhood just northwest of Chicago’s downtown, offering “emerging” artists a bit of “otherness” in an underground mystique. A little raw in feel, but just enough adventure for the avid art buff. The gallery is housed in a building owned by developer and art buyer Lew Manilow, who certainly sees no evil in having state subsidized tenants. Though subsidized by both state and , federal government, the Randolph Street Gallery deems it necessary (perhaps to complete its BoHo image) to set out a dollar jar for beer at art openings. I’ve often wondered, while stuffing my dollar into that jar, how many citizens would be willing to do so if they knew the extent to which they subsidize this place each year. This counterculture scene is repeated across the country. Favored little groups stuff their pockets with government subsidies while presenting themselves as good and true soldiers of “diversity.” This is the new cultural “doublethink” of our era: the “alternative” is the mainstream.
“Commitment” seems to be the art world’s current buzzword. Shirley R. Madigan, chairman of the Illinois Arts Council and wife of Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House of State Representatives, used it four times in the lAC’s 1990 annual report. “With the creation of the Illinois Arts Council one quarter of a century ago, the Illinois General Assembly demonstrated a commitment to the citizens of Illinois. . . . ” NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer is also fond of the “c-word.” “Federal support shows our commitment to the general welfare of our citizens, particularly in their pursuit of happiness, and support on the national level is a sign to the rest of the world of the value our culture places on our culture and civilization.” So strong is this “commitment” that in January 1990 the Illinois Legislature formed another arts committee, adding yet another layer of bureaucracy to the quagmire of state government. The new committee seats, among others, Richard Love—artist, arts promoter, TV host, and owner of a very successful gallery. Richard Love is all too typical of the new brand of arts politico. Also on this committee is arts maven Irene Antoniou, who also doubled as an NEA Opera, Theater, Musical Advisory Panel member in 1990. Perhaps this is what Chairman Madigan means when she refers to the “economic power of the arts to insure Illinois’ growth.”
Real commitment to the arts is a lonely and frustrating business. It was eloquently summed up in a supermarket aisle by a former classmate of mine from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Standing between the plastic wrap and the air fresheners, he was irate that two other former classmates of ours had, as husband and wife, each won $ 15,000 from the NEA. They are upper-middle-class whites who live in one of Chicago’s exclusive North Shore suburbs, and both have long been represented by one of Chicago’s most influential galleries. As my own school chum said, “Why should I pay my tax dollars to them to do what I do after I get home from working nine to five all day?” Why, indeed. Perhaps this is what Chairman Frohnmayer means when he says the NEA is “committed” to supporting “diversity in America.”
I sympathize with my frustrated classmate. My own career as an artist and painter has spanned the twenty-five-year spread and growth of government intervention in the arts. In 1965 my work was included in the 29th Corcoran Gallery of Art Biennial Exhibition in Washington, D.C. A blacktie dinner followed that included such assorted luminaries as Robert Rauchenberg and Nancy Hanks. Nancy spoke glowingly of her efforts for government “support” of the arts. A true believer. Of course, at age 25 I was vastly impressed and did not realize that I was present for the beginning of the end of freedom in the arts in America. Today I marvel at the wit, cleverness, and utter nonchalance of the new American arts aristocracy as it travels the fast lane of government patronage. No, I don’t like competing against artists greased along by government bucks. The arts were hard enough to survive in, but now they are even harder—made so by government-sponsored mediocrity. For an artist to be antiestablishment in America today is for him or her to be in opposition to one’s own peers.
My old school catalogue reads like a “Who’s Who” of IAC/NEA grantees, each flaunting his or her respective government stamps of approval to prospective art students, many of whom will be led to expect that their art as well as their lifestyles should be subsidized. Yes, everyone knows that our children’s artistic education is important to our arts councils. One such concerned group is the heavily subsidized Illinois Alliance for Arts in Education (IAAE). The IAAE is politically well-connected, and past President Dennis Grabowski has even served on IAC panels while his former group received grants. IAAE President Rich Schuler and Executive Director Nadine Saitlin served on last year’s IAC panels, and, of course, the IAAE was an honored grantee. In the IAAE 1990 Update Newsletter the group was pleased to report on official artist Karen Erickson, who “was recently involved in a cultural exchange program between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., sponsored by the League of Chicago Theatres and the Union of Theatre Workers of the Russian Federation. As part of a six member group, Karen was able to observe an artist-in-residence program at the state school in Leningrad.” The article concludes that “Karen was able to learn a great deal about Theatre in Russia.”
In the ongoing Balkanization of the American arts industry and what’s left of American culture, I suppose this experience will provide the citizens of Illinois with a perfect symbiosis of perestroika and “commitment” for our kids. Yes, the NEA and your state arts councils are committed to you and your children. Our cultural Gauleiters say, “Don’t worry,” everything’s fine, for they’ve taken over the art world, turned it into a branch of the civil service, and taken on the business of “promoting creativity.” After all, the government knows what’s best for you. Who else is going to teach inner-city residents about the fundamentals of interior design?