For those who oppose government arts funding, Bruce Cole’s new book has some bad news. The train left the station long ago: around 1783. That’s when the Confederation Congress commissioned an equestrian statue of George Washington. It was never created, but it established the tortuous practice of federal patronage of the arts. Over the years, the federal government has spent billions on art, ranging from the iconic Capitol Rotunda paintings to the gorgeous survey photographs of the American West taken beginning in the 1850s to about 225,000 objects commissioned by the WPA during the Great Depression to everything funded by the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities today. And that’s just for starters.
Cole died earlier this year, leaving a nearly completed manuscript of his book. Expertly finished by his colleagues at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, it illustrates “the spongey and enveloping nature” of government patronage using a handful of readable and sometimes jaw-dropping vignettes. Cole knew his material. He was the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for eight years and a revered scholar of Venetian Renaissance art.
Every serious student of political science should do two things: run for office, even local office, and read Cole’s chapter on the Eisenhower Memorial, under construction now on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Both experiences illuminate the realities of politics, one the dynamics of getting elected and the other the peculiar logic governing the flow of public dollars. Cole saw the Eisenhower story unfold as NEH chairman and as a member, appointed by President Obama, of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. A good teacher and storyteller, he showed us that in government truth is often stranger than fiction.
There’s no villain in this story, really, but there are lots of people whose laudable intentions go awry. The project began in 2000 with a $300,000 appropriation in a Defense Department bill to create a memorial to Eisenhower, the 34th president and the general in command of the liberation of Europe during the Second World War. It hasn’t concluded. The monument opens next year. Its total cost is $150 million.
Going from $300,000 to $150 million takes imagination, persistence, and a grisly enthusiasm. The story’s characters? There are war heroes, among them Rocco Siciliano, a Bronze Star recipient who served in Ike’s White House and became an influential Los Angeles lawyer. He doggedly led the charge for a memorial on the Mall. Senators Ted Stevens (R., Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D., Hawaii) were heavyweights — also war heroes, and from the last two states admitted to the Union, both under Ike’s reign. Then there’s the temperamental star, Frank Gehry, arguably America’s most famous architect, known for designs such as the Guggenheim Bilbao and for cost overruns. The heroes wanted Gehry. Gehry wanted one of his designs on the Mall. There was no saying “No.”
There’s the family. Ike’s grandchildren were inexperienced in the ways of government boondoggles. They were anxious to do the right thing but often befuddled. They loathed the initial Gehry design, but with each quest for a saner monument came another blast from a fog machine, another design tweak, and, curiously, something bigger and more expensive, and still by Gehry. Near shell-shocked, they supported the final version. It was take it or leave it. They now regret having backed it.
There’s a monster lurking, in this case, behind construction fencing. The memorial itself is set in a four-acre site framed by giant welded-steel screens, called “tapestries,” supported by columns that are eight feet high and ten feet wide. The screens run the length of a city block. The biggest tapestry depicts an aerial view of the Normandy beaches of D-Day. There’s a sculpture of Eisenhower as a child. The family thought it diminished, even trivialized, Ike the adult, general, and president. The sculpture’s still there, but the memorial isn’t about Eisenhower anymore. Cole shows us that it’s a monument to Gehry, to government, to stubborn backers, and to the Swamp.
Whenever seemingly beaten, the memorial rose again. The outcome is still a mystery. Maybe the memorial will surprise us and look good. I’m not confident, and Cole was certain it’ll make Frankenstein’s monster look like Shirley Temple.
Oh, and there’s a body, there in spirit, that is: Eisenhower, who was among our most parsimonious presidents. Only Washington could find so perverse, so ironic a way to honor the last president truly to balance the federal budget.
Cole’s section on the General Services Administration’s Art in Architecture program is more situation comedy. One extensive vignette focuses on Ursula von Rydingsvard’s 17-foot-tall, eight-ton sculpture for the FBI’s new south-Florida headquarters. A convoluted bureaucratic process produced an object to which dozens of FBI employees had an allergic reaction. Cole, ever courtly, observed that an abstract sculpture made of Canadian cypress by a New York artist for a glass-filled facility in Florida showed an “obvious lack of critical thought about the materials and the placement.” It was removed as a health hazard.
There’s the timeless tale of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, the 120-foot-long, twelve-foot-tall wall of COR-TEN steel installed in front of the Javits Federal Building in Manhattan in 1981. Serra intended to intrude on the comings and goings of federal workers via the “non-utilitarian, non-functional” sculpture, as he described it. Federal workers hated it. They lost their open-space plaza. The installation is now gone. The government is still paying to store the scrap.
Cole’s chapter on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is more historical. He revisits the culture wars in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which were driven in part by Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and the Perfect Moment, a retrospective of the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. These long-ago controversies still figure in many art-history classes. Every art historian and curator knows them.
Until the 1990s, the NEA gave grants to individual artists. It stopped the program when too many recipients became lightning rods. I tend to look at direct federal grants to artists as a quality-control issue. I love artists, but there are lots of them, and many aren’t very good. Shocking to say, some aren’t reliable, either. The state arts agencies — and every state has some version of the NEA — are in a better position to give direct grants: They have a better handle on who is actually going to produce something worthwhile, on time, and on budget. Cole makes the very good point that the NEA now gives out so many awards, in such small amounts, and so thinly spread among congressional districts, that its impact is negligible.
I’d call Cole’s story the tip of the iceberg, but he’d see that as an insult to icebergs. He doesn’t examine the total federal tax expenditures dedicated to the arts. Our museum system, our symphonies, and our not-for-profit theaters, for instance, are almost exclusively private but funded by tax-deductible philanthropy. Europe’s are largely public. Charitable gifts there aren’t deductible and aren’t common. The State Department’s education-and-culture arm spends billions on art. The Institute for Museums and Library Services has a budget of about $230 million. It supports many museum-conservation and art-access projects.
If there’s one thing the federal government can do to make its arts spending go farther, it’s to simplify the process. There are at least eleven steps, each with a committee and a bureaucracy, involved in getting GSA arts projects off the ground. It would make more sense for a project’s architect to commission a government building’s art. The architect knows the client and the site. It’s his or her aesthetic vision. Art chosen by committees is always going to be bad. Art chosen by the architect? If it’s a flop, at least we know whom to blame.