If I thought there should be a National Endowment for the Arts, I'd probably want Dana Gioia to run it. To my tastes he's a very good poet, a better critic and something approaching a genius at arts entrepreneurship—and before you scorn this last talent I have two words for you: Ezra Pound. When I met Gioia in the mid-1990s, he was travelling the country giving poetry readings and lectures in the wake of the sensation caused by his influential book-length essay "Can Poetry Matter". Gioia made it his mission to bring like-minded souls together: If there were two people in Loudon County who loved metrical poetry or tonal art music, Gioia wanted to make sure they had each other's phone numbers and would be in touch with each other long after he had flown home. The Gioia of community college parking lots and small town galleries was a marvel of catalysis. His efforts culminated in the West Chester University Poetry Conference, which continues to this day.
He has had as much success at motivating congresspeople and first ladies as aspiring writers. Viewed in terms of his official mission, his leadership of the NEA has to count as an astounding success. Cultivating rather than scorning influential Republican legislators and putting the NEA's least controversial work front and center, like the Shakespeare in American Communities project and the Jazz Masters series, Gioia has bagged the NEA its largest proposed funding increase in twenty years. Roger Kimball, bluest of bluestockings with a nose to match, is beside himself with glee:
Within a matter of months, Mr. Gioia has transformed that moribund institution into a vibrant force for the preservation and transmission of artistic culture. He has cut out the cutting edge and put back the art. Instead of supporting repellent "transgressive" freaks, he has instituted an important new program to bring Shakespeare to communities across America. And by Shakespeare I mean Shakespeare, not some PoMo rendition that portrays Hamlet in drag or sets A Midsummer Night's Dream in a concentration camp.
The usual libertarian objections apply. The Dana Gioia of the reading series inspired people to put their own time and money into a particular vision of cultural renewal. The Dana Gioia of the corridors inspires officials to spend other people's money. (One reason Gioia had to go the Johnny Appleseed route of establishing small groves of literary revolution—or counterrevolution if you insist—was that the movement's enemies controlled the official sources of sponsorship like the NEA.) However happy Roger Kimball is today, future Presidents and directors will fund things that curl Kimball's leg hair, and the NEA of his nightmares will be the stronger for the success of the NEA of his fleeting dreams.
Viewed dispassionately, bringing culture to "underserved communities" is just another form of pork, outlays spread among as many congressional districts as possible. How underserved is America, Shakespearewise, anyway? According to the official tour guide, the organization brought Othello to Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas and the Walton Arts Center where the play took place, and the Drama Theatre in Fowler Performing Arts Center at Arkansas State University. Are these places really deserts of Shakespearean performance?
Those are political objections and I buy every one of them. But my real desire to abolish the NEA is for the sake of the arts. It's true enough that, as Jacob Sullum reminds us, the NEA's budget amounts to about one percent of American arts funding. But that doesn't tell the whole story.
Years ago, tragedy struck the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland when the Clinton-era NEA declined to renew the Center's grant because it was not doing enough "outreach." In his lament in the organization's newsletter, Director Allan Lefcowitz explained why the loss was such a problem: an NEA grant has a multiplier effect. The major foundations view it as a Seal of Approval. NEA money attracts anxious private money.
If the NEA's outsized influence on private giving struck Lefcowitz as a problem, he was too tactful to say so. But it strikes me as one. The NEA has been an excuse for private donors to abdicate the responsibilities of connoisseurship. Not only did we have plenty of Shakespeare before the NEA, we had real patronage. John Quinn paid for modernism out of his own pocket, bankrolling Yeats, Eliot and Joyce at various times. He didn't look for official sanction before doing so. Get rid of the Official 1 percent, and perhaps the Unofficial 99 percent might recover a modicum of Quinn's courage—maybe find the next Young Dana Gioia out on the road, or he them.