National Endowment for the Arts, Institution Building, & People of Color

Guest contributor to Racialicious, Tiffany Bradley, wrote a thoughtful piece on why the National Endowment for the Arts has such a limited impact on artists of color. Her essay is entitled, “Kickstart This: Why the NEA Is Irrelevant to Artists of Color.” In her piece, Bradley astutely notes that the NEA is designed to fund institutions, and that many artists of color are not necessarily working within institutions.  More than that, Bradley points out that the work that many artists of color are doing, and the cultures from which we come, do not easily fit within the frameworks of largely white-run or white-funded organizations – adding a level of pressure and tension – to how and when artists of color enter (“with their whole race too”) into arts organizations.

Rather than rely on the NEA, Bradley suggests that we turn to fundraising campaigns like those run by Kickstarter which allow artists to crowdsource their fundraising for specific projects. There are in fact a couple of Kickstarter projects that look interesting to me, including:

1. The Uptown Collective’s East WillyB

2. Magic The Gathering The Musical

Bradley is making a lot of really great points. Instead of relying on government institutions to fund projects, or even simply relying solely on giving to large institutions that then funnel money, Kickstarter allows you to give directly to work that you are passionate about. And its time, I think Bradley is saying, for us to use the power of our wallets to fund directly what is meaningful to us as people of color; we don’t have to wait for our cultures to be recognized of the doors of the canon to be opened in welcome. In fact, I think implicit in this, is that institutional networks and funding, while wonderful can also sometimes hinder an artist if they are dealing with tropes, figures, and themes which the institution is not invested in exploring.

It’s true that Kickstarter, like any other organization, probably has issues of privilege and politics to navigate. Yet, the model, I think is quite interesting – as is Bradley’s larger point about how artists of color are funded – and where and how those artists can be supported. There is another point to be considered. The NEA is a very different institution now, than it was twenty-five years ago, as a result of conservative attacks on culture and art programming. The 1990s saw the peak of the assault – instigated by the NEA’s funding of exhibits that included work by Damien Hirsch and Robert Mapplethorpe. The inability of the NEA to meet the needs of artists of color or to adequately fund communities of color engaged in art education, is also related to a broader attack by conservatives on art and culture programming. Perhaps the NEA might consider doing things differently, but the structures now in place, are there precisely to prevent the NEA from reaching its previous stature or of challenging the status qu0 (as much as a government institution is able to that is),

I agree with Bradley that the NEA cannot fully meet the needs of artists of color or communities and cultures of color vis-a-vis some of its current funding structures, however, I also think that this is directly linked to the ways in which the NEA itself has been attacked and gutted. There is something, also to be said, I think for supporting the NEA – because in truth, privatization of arts funding, crowdsourcing – that is what conservatives want. They do not want publicly funded art programs. If you have Kickstarter why do you need the NEA? In truth, I believe that we need both kinds of structures, however, I think that people of color invested in the arts, must also remain committed to organizations like the NEA; pushing back against them, holding them accountable, holding up the ideal of what a diversely funded, dynamic cultural and arts support can look like. One that doesn’t push people, communities, and artists of color – not to mention working-class folks, LGBTQI, or people with disabilities – to the margin.

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