Disbursing the NEA’s $75 Million in COVID Cash

Wall Drawing 692, 1991, by Sol LeWitt. Continuous forms with color in washes superimposed. (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art)
Rethink the plan and target those who need help the most.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A rthur T. Barbieri was the Democratic boss in New Haven from the early 1950s into the late 1970s. Sounds like a minor martinet but New Haven, the first Model City, was the urban-renewal movement’s incubator. Barbieri moved tens of millions of dollars and got the votes for this spectacular, hubristic failure, an adventure as reckless as the one we’re on now, though not as hasty. At least that mess’s masters didn’t decide over a weekend to crash an entire economy.

Yale’s there, so every politically ambitious undergraduate in the 1960s tended to wade into the swamp in which Barbieri wasn’t the kingfish — he was too discreet — but more like the Hydra of Lerna. Bill Clinton had his first political job in Art’s office. What better place to learn the art of money laundering? Google Art today, and his ties to the Mafia pop up mostly. That’s too bad. He was more than a mobster.

I got to know Art well, through many family and political connections. We kept in close touch until he died in 1998, in part because I was in politics, too. My base was the small Republican towns bordering New Haven. We had our own machine, but things were more on the up and up. I couldn’t believe how much I liked him. Yes, Art was louche, corrupt, and mean. He was also funny, worldly, teasing, bashful, part con man, part psychiatrist. He’d charm a vampire from a slit throat.

Art had a special way with arithmetic. No one counted votes with such artistry, with élan, in an era with no models, algorithms, or even pocket calculators. When it came to fraud, he had “who, what, where, when, and how many” in his head. Surely the politicians, journo hacks, and experts who bungled us into the Chinese Coronavirus Depression are channeling Art Barbieri as they pad death counts, scrambling to justify what they’ve done.

Dr. Birx, with her Hermès scarves and soothing, candlelit authority, let the cat out of the bag — oh, and to terrify us further, the experts say cats might be contagious. “We’re counting mortality very liberally,” she said. Anyone dying “with COVID-19” is “presumed” to have died “from COVID-19.”

In New York, with Washington the beacon light of creative accounting, deaths are attributed retroactively. Respiratory failures are lumped into the death counts. “COVID-19 or equivalent,” in New York’s parlance, goosed its death count by a third in one gruesome swoop. Seasonal flu deaths will get a makeover. Mayor de Blasio wants to count “unexplained home deaths.” Of course, we know he doesn’t want this to end until the death count meets his equity, inclusion, and diversity targets.

It’s a numbers game now — and all politics. How best to disguise one of the truly awful scandals in this truly awful disaster: the deaths in New York of 6,000 nursing-home residents? Nearly everyone’s on the dole now. Can we ever unwind it? “We’ll spend what it takes.” Takes to do what? It’s a virus. It’s here, and it’s not going back in the test tube at that Chinese lab that, as seems likely, negligently let it loose.

Art Barbieri would be dismayed and puzzled. A living organism he couldn’t buy off.

Milwaukee Art Museum (Milwaukee Art Museum)

As part of the now $3 trillion plan to fight COVID-19, Congress sent $200 million in relief money to the three main federal arts agencies. Next time, I’ll write about the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Today, I’ll address how the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is spending its $75 million share.

The NEA has a plan that’s not going to have much bang. It’s gotten $75 million, with half going to state arts agencies as pass-through money, as Congress wants, leaving $37.5 million to spend. It’s giving lump-sum grants of $50,000 to stand-alone arts organizations and grants of $100,000 or $250,000 to sub-granting organizations. One of the big problems with NEA overall is that it dribbles bits of money to lots of organizations, so this is par for the course. NEA has great people. It needs to get out of the habit of giving little grants.

NEA prides itself for giving grants to “all 50 states.” This is nice, but counting up to 50 isn’t good or particularly inventive policy making. It’s meant to buy goodwill, lots of little grants here and there, gather-ye-congressmen-while-ye-may kind of thing. Art wouldn’t approve. He disdained people who’d take a case of booze for a bribe. “Cheap dates,” he’d snort.

The NEA won’t consider need in awarding money, either. It says it can’t, and the statute does set “artistic merit” as the main criterion, but it doesn’t say it’s exclusive to others, and if the NEA is following the exact letter of the law, it’s the only federal agency to do so.

“Need-blind” means that the Met — with a $3 billion endowment, a fundraising machine, and tons of rich donors — is as eligible for a $50,000 grant as a museum that can’t pay its electric bill. The NEA can and does, however, privilege places with poor or underserved audiences, which isn’t in the statute.

Let’s just assume, this once, that a museum on the Upper East Side whose biggest fundraiser is a Fashion Institute gala run by the editor of Vogue tends not to focus on a poor and underserved audience while a museum in Seattle, Akron, Milwaukee, Worcester, either Portland, or poor little Bennington in Vermont does. A few blocks from the Met, the American Folk Art Museum does fantastic work, but it’s small and needs to hustle for donors.

The NEA isn’t thinking carefully about different categories of art groups. I’d wager that the organizations suffering the most are theater companies, symphonies, and opera companies. The government, press, and experts have generated a panic in which people fear sitting next to people they don’t know. Will a sneeze or cough in a crowded theater now have the same effect as yelling “fire”?

These arts venues have essentially lost the rest of this year, yet they have bills to pay, and they tend not to have endowments. They need cash. Some superb museums such as Mass MoCA show art but also offer great concerts, lectures, and stand-up comedy as a big part of their profile. They’re a special breed and need special help.

The new Park Lobby in the Asian Art Museum, facing Fuller Garden Court (Photo: © Adam Hunter/LMN Architects)

The elegant Dr. Birx and the new geriatric pop star Dr. Fauci admit that quarantining an entire country and crashing a world economy to fight a virus have never been tried before. That in itself is a big red flag. NEA’s $50,000-a-pop plan doesn’t begin to address the uncharted territory museums face.

I think museums are doing what they can to take care of their people. That said, a museum shouldn’t keep an army of guards or visitor-amenities staff on the payroll if there are no visitors and museums are closed. That’s an abuse of the philanthropy that pays a museum’s bills. The Met was very nice to protect its people for a few weeks on its own dime, but it’s got a big deficit to close. Unemployment insurance exists to help people who are laid off. If they’re upset, their beef isn’t with the museums. It’s with the knuckleheads who closed the economy in the most reckless adventure since we went all guns blazing in search of those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The Payroll Protection Plan is the oddest program. The leaders of Congress — a big red flag, as Art certainly told me more than once that politicians are sleazy — conceived and passed this $358 billion program in about the same amount of time it takes to make a good osso buco — another big red flag.

Museums are getting PPP money. San Francisco’s MoMA got $6.2 million. That’ll keep its staff on the payroll until June 30. That money is meant for small businesses, and SF MoMa isn’t a small business, but it’s a sloppy law, and the museum is entitled to the money.

The staff there is circulating a petition demanding a guarantee of employment after that period. It’s one of many petitions that museum staffs are circulating, and they invariably demand permanent employment and want the director’s salary cut to zero to pay for it. Their math is challenged, but I guess you can’t beat dumb animals. And animals, except cats, tend not to be vindictive.

This isn’t the NEA’s issue, but now and over the next few months, museum directors and trustees are reassessing museum staffing from top to bottom. Many tangential programs and their staffs will disappear. This isn’t a bad thing. Museum staffs have become too bloated as museums have evolved into community centers. They need to focus on core values, such as promoting their permanent collections and educating, not entertaining, people.

Museums have big expenses aside from staff. For many, the unprecedented shutdown has wrecked their financial plans. How to help? Those with big endowments should draw on their savings to pay bills. The money is for the future, I know, but it’s for emergencies, too. These museums shouldn’t clamor for federal dough, especially PPP or NEA emergency dough, while 27 million Americans are out of work. That’s immoral and tasteless.

College museums like Yale’s and Harvard’s and government-owned museums like LACMA shouldn’t get any money. They have parent organizations and need to go to Mom and Dad with a tin cup rather than Uncle Sam.

The NEA program provides for grants of $100,000 and $250,000 to “sub-granting agencies.” Examples are the City of Boston’s Cultural Council and the City of Phoenix’s office of arts and culture. These are local government agencies. Why carve out the biggest pots for them? They should jostle with every other municipal need. Unlike free-standing museums run through philanthropy, local governments have a captive tax base.

The best way to help museums is a one-year change in the law empowering the NEA to indemnify traveling loan exhibitions. The law saves museums many millions of dollars in insurance costs every year. Rather than commercially insure high-value art borrowed for temporary exhibitions, museums apply for a federal indemnity covering loss or damage. It’s the government’s most effective arts program.

I would suggest changing the law to allow the NEA to indemnify permanent collections rather than loan exhibitions for a one-year period. The law now allows the NEA to indemnify up to $7.5 billion in art each year. Indemnifying museum permanent collections would save insurance premiums. Almost all of this art is locked in vaults. Forever attentive to actual need, I’d find a way to base eligibility on endowment money so the richest museums wouldn’t get any help.

In nearly 50 years of indemnifying exhibitions, the NEA has transformed culture for the better. And in those years, it’s had only two tiny claims, both under $5,000. For the Addison Gallery, the small museum I directed for ten years, this move would save over $115,000. Insurance companies won’t like it since they’ll lose premiums, but this is an emergency.

“Change the law?” Yes, and it’s easy, if the NEA and the art-museum-directors’ association push for it. Nancy Pelosi slipped $25 million into the CARES Act for the Kennedy Center, which does great things, but it’s a playground for the rich. And $75 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, although every liberal’s limousine has NPR on its channel scanner. Channel Art Barbieri. He’ll tell you how. He got $1 million from the feds to renovate New Haven’s flower market, a Mafia front for money laundering.

Art would approve of hosing insurance companies. Connecticut’s insurance business was in Hartford, not New Haven, and its payoffs and no-show jobs went to the legislature.

Untitled (“These Little Children. . . ”),
Mid-twentieth century, by Henry Darger. Hand-tinted photograph and ink on cardboard. (American Folk Art Museum, New York, gift of Kiyoko Lerner, 2003.7.60 Photo: Gavin Ashworth, American Folk Art Museum, New York © Kiyoko Lerner)

I’ve written about NEA’s eyebrow-raising preference for arts groups in New York, California, and Washington. Invariably, these three places get money in chunks that are trip-to-the-moon league out of proportion to their population. The NEA is in Washington so — no surprise — the D.C.-based staff likes and knows the locals.

I know that Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City have lots of arts groups, but so do Texas, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan. Instead of “all 50 states,” which tends to mean pennies for Missouri and Maine and a bundle for Beverly Hills 90210 and environs, let’s put the money where the people are.

Art Barbieri didn’t hate good government. “Not my yob, man,” he’d say, aping New Haven’s then nascent Hispanic population. His job was to grease the wheels and win elections. “Plague of Women Vipers shit,” he’d call programs that worked well and efficiently, programs the local League of Women Voters tended to push. He was practical, though, and a problem-solver in days when city jobs and other political largess put food on the tables of thousands of working-class Americans. And arts groups have big problems now, unfathomable six weeks ago.

He also ran an illegal betting operation fronted by New Haven’s ice-cream parlors. The COVID-19 crisis is forcing all of us, especially in the arts, to get creative in making ends meet. Let’s help those needing it the most.

 

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