COVID Cash for the Arts: Where to Start

IMLS-supported “Posing Beauty” exhibition (Courtesy of the Northwest African American Museum)
Cut pay for federal employees, and devote funds to reopening libraries, museums, and other places where people find community.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he other day I wrote about how the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is using its $75 million CARES Act appropriation. It’s an inconsequential plan. Most arts organizations are eligible for a $50,000 lump sum, a figure I suspect is meant to reinforce its “all 50 states” mantra.

NEA supports the gamut of arts organizations, from museums to dance companies to schools, theaters, opera companies, and symphonies. Each has different structures, goals, and needs, and each is affected differently by the government’s reckless, hubristic, never-been-done-before adventure. This demands a nuanced, targeted approach.

NEA has a superb folk-art division, which handles Native American, Pacific Islander, and local African-American art. It has a good musical-theater division, too. It’s helping a medium stay alive and, boy, does it have problems, now that COVID-19 has empowered a legion of fearmongers and neurotics.

Technically, with that hoop skirt, Gertrude Lawrence was six feet away from Yul Brynner in The King and I, but where were their face masks, and, by the way, the New York Times says aerosolized droplets travel 27 feet, so let’s put Siam under quarantine whenever those two crazies hit the dance floor. Let’s get Javert on the case.

The campus crazies demanding safe spaces seem to have polluted the entire culture with fear and anxiety.

Today I’ll write about the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which is spending $50 million, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which got $75 million.

Government, by the way, has done jolly well during the Chinese coronavirus crisis. I wonder if a single federal employee will find himself, herself, or . . . what could it be . . . the non-binary “themself” among the unemployed, now more than 30 million. Declaring a health emergency, government at almost all levels, goaded by a giddy press, managed to get the entire citizenry supine and shaking in fear, confined under police surveillance.

I’m surprised at how many experts want to keep the apocalypse going. They’re enjoying their TV and front-page place in the sun. They’re indulging their inner Dr. Scrivello, the dentist in the musical Little Shop of Horrors. He’s the clever, dominant sado-psycho who promises his patients “a long, slow root canal” leading to an orgasm. “But he’s a professional,” cries one of his subjects. Dr. Scrivello was bad news even before that alien carnivorous plant arrived.

Government employees aren’t exactly livin’ on Easy Street, the lofty address Miss Hannigan hopes in song to occupy in Annie. They’re not suffering, though. My own personal opinion is that every federal employee should get a pay cut commensurate with the May unemployment rate, you know, in solidarity with the workers. A pay cut will focus minds on reopening a needlessly crashed economy.

The casualties of the COVID-19 fiasco aren’t only the dead whose nursing homes weren’t protected — that’s about 20,000 people and a huge scandal. Who else? Those who can’t get cancer treatments or melanoma screenings because they’re frightened of going to a hospital and, anyway, doctor’s offices are closed and our hospitals are going broke. I haven’t checked recently, and maybe Amazon’s working on it, but you can’t get a colonoscopy online.

Young people. They’ve lost months of schooling and now have the joy of $3 trillion in new debt, money blown in a matter of weeks, not on education or the arts or infrastructure or better health care benefiting the young but on keeping healthy people locked up and unemployed. And the people canned first, who make the least and have less seniority, are mostly young. Child-abuse hotline calls are surging. Kids are missing checkups and vaccinations.

The median age of the COVID-19 dead is over 80. The fatality rate for healthy young people is near zero.

IMLS shows creativity, always. It supports libraries — and I think libraries are holy places — and museums. IMLS is the secret sauce in a broad mission to expand public access to intellectual and heritage content. I know it as a big booster of museum conservation, digitizing collections, and museum education focused on young people.

I have a soft spot for librarians, and not because Marian the Librarian sings “Till There Was You.” I’ve been on library boards off and on for 40 years. The best librarians are teachers, scholars, mentors, and, from time to time, psychiatrists. They can be superb fundraisers because they’re sincere and have the callings of priests, which is probably why they’re often bad fundraisers — they’re not fakers or flatterers.

“Casanova and the Seduction of Europe,” an IMLS-supported exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (Photo courtesy IMLS)

In an unusual burst of government smarts, IMLS is using a big chunk of its $50 million to help museums and libraries reopen, because reopen they must. We can’t stay in a cave until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine. There’s no vaccine for TB, AIDS, SARS, Ebola, MERS, and a thousand other illnesses. We can hope for one, but what hubris to assume it’s around the corner. This is hard news for the lame brains who think science is a divinity or an ideology.

It’s logical for museums and libraries to open first. There, people naturally space themselves apart. Guards in museums are already trained to tell people “don’t get too close to the art.” Museums have advanced HVAC equipment. In libraries, people browse or read, both solitary activities.

That said, museums and libraries are communal spaces, too, and we need as many of those spaces to reopen as possible and soon. The fear people feel now needs to dissolve, and young people need to understand that risk is part of life. People visit for many reasons, but many go to feel engaged and part of a community, even if they don’t talk to anyone. One of the consequences of this dreadful policy and cultural failure we’ve hastily but freely chosen is the epidemic of loneliness it’s sown.

I see it in my friends from church, mostly old, and the shut-ins I call in my little Vermont town. Quarantine — forced isolation — has left people moldering. This is cruel, and it’s dishonest. We can’t, as a society, guarantee their virus-free safety. We need to assuage pointless fear by opening the spaces in which people feel comfortable and enriched.

IMLS is already working closely with applied scientists to develop hygiene protocols to keep staff and visitors safe. Not airy academics in love with theory and models, and not medical bureaucrats who are, themselves, susceptible to politics and power-seeking, but practical scientists and doctors. IMLS is also working with current grant recipients who need an infusion of money to keep their projects going.

A throttled economy and more than 30 million layoffs is going to hit and distort every facet of normal American life. IMLS funds lots of projects at small Native American and African American museums and archives. They are mostly struggling, have weak donor bases, and are bound to feel the effects of a downturn targeting low- and middle-income workers. IMLS’s existing projects will stall if the people doing the work on the ground lose their jobs.

One Mount Vernon Street hall, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, renovation supported by NEH (Photo courtesy of the Walters Art Museum)

NEH has already distributed about $30 million to the 55 state and territorial humanities councils for them to distribute as they wish. The money is distributed proportionately based on population. NEA, NEH, and IMLS are required by law to support their state-level counterparts, and this is a very good thing. The state agencies know local needs on a micro level. Who’s doing high-quality work on a shoestring? What local arts venues can’t raise private money because they’re in poor neighborhoods? Who is reliable? Surprise — artists and academics sometimes are flakes.

How will NEH evaluate applications? It gives general examples of things it will consider, projects it considers good ideas. My quibbles with some of them are philosophical. I think a lot of online instruction is a waste of time, and NEH is suggesting it will promote this. I don’t think online instruction for young people is good instruction. Young people thrive in the classroom’s give and take.

Young people master technology in infancy, but for many, online learning is a mirage. Poor kids often don’t have connectivity. Poor families tend to move, and children often shuttle among caregivers. And why assume that poor households have access to home computers?

In any event, I wonder how efficient a focus on online access actually is. Schools are going to reopen in the fall. Online teaching won’t be needed then, unless we close the world whenever COVID-19 kills someone, as it surely will, since it’s a nasty virus and, as we know from the musical Aladdin, genies don’t go back in the bottle.

Many small humanities groups such as scholarly societies and private libraries have a big yearly fundraiser, and these small places rely on that money to carry them through the year. Obviously, they can’t have their fundraisers now. The Safety Nazis won’t have it. The NEH invites proposals for replacement cash to keep them going, and this makes sense.

The “humanities” is a huge arena. The NEH supports some great, new research in history, the classics, and literature and lots of good filmmaking projects, mostly scholarly documentaries but podcasts, too. I’m impressed with the infrastructure grants it’s made, paying for projects sponsored by organizations that aren’t rich. It funded the lovely renovation of the historic house museum belonging to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the renovation of the Islamic galleries at the Cincinnati Art Museum. This year, it also funded good shows at the Norman Rockwell Museum and the Portland Art Museum in Maine.

None of these places are rich. NEH gives serious money, grants in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and these truly make big projects happen.

I looked through the recent round of NEH grants, announced in the beginning of April, before the crazy clique of big government, big journo, and the big bobblehead science establishment sent the economy to Sweeney Todd for a makeover. It gave some nice grants to small, decidedly unrich places, including the Harriet Beecher Stowe house in Hartford, the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, the Amistad Center in New Orleans, and the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City.

There are hundreds of places like these that are now in deep financial doo-doo. Funding new programs for online learning or making podcasts and documentaries on COVID-19 — NEH’s guidelines suggest this, too — seems pretty puny and ineffective, jarringly so, given the financial problems that small organizations are facing. I think they need basic budget relief to stay alive.

Helping organizations prepare to reopen makes sense, too. Every venue where human contact occurs will need to spend new, unbudgeted hygiene money. If it was a lab in Wuhan that let the coronavirus escape, as American intelligence has recently suggested, it has created more than a health threat. It’s put the entire country in a state of fear. It’s exposed and enabled an army of masked, bubble-wrapped hypochondriacs and their Soviet-style manipulators. New standards need to be reasonable. Let’s not turn our children into Felix Unger.

I went to a small high school, mostly working- and middle-class kids, where I had a classical education focusing on Latin, logic, math, Christian theology, and classical Greek and Roman literature. Perspective, the perils that hubris invites, the merits of courage, and the possibilities and limits of human endeavor come to mind as the key points drilled into my otherwise pretty empty teenaged head.

If NEH is going to fund anything new, a program like this aimed at young people would help buttress them against the assault on resilience and critical thinking that the current crisis presents.

Stephen Sondheim presents an award for Best Director during the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures award gala in New York in 2008. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Which brings me to Stephen Sondheim’s Frogs, a most unusual musical. It’s a riff on Aristophanes’ comedy from 405 b.c. In Sondheim’s iteration, Dionysus, disturbed about the world’s fraught condition, descends to Hades to bring George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare back from the dead to advise humanity on what to do. Who of the two playwrights has the better advice? It’s from 1974 and was first performed in New Haven, about as fraught a time and place as any, at least by American standards.

It’s brilliant, and thank God that Shakespeare wins and not that desiccated, talky old socialist. “Fear No More,” the poem from Cymbeline, does the trick:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hath done
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust

Sondheim does toss in “cowards die a thousand deaths, but the valiant die just one,” courtesy of Julius Caesar. NEH could do worse than send the soundtrack to every American student. Let’s stop treating COVID-19 as the biggest catastrophe in the modern era, and let’s stop manufacturing a catastrophe where there isn’t one.

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