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Starving artists

Support - federal or state - for individuals has all but ended, an unspoken issue when the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts came to town.

When Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, breezed through town early this month ("to learn," as an endowment press official put it), he heard a great deal about "siloing."

The arts can't "be siloed," said Jane Golden, head of the city's Mural Arts Program. It's important "to eliminate all the silos" that constrain thinking about arts funding, said Jeremy Nowak, head of the Reinvestment Fund, the nonprofit development organization that was one of Landesman's hosts.

There was not, however, much talk about art making, or those who make it. Art for art's sake? Not at the moment - a time when public funding for individual artists has virtually vanished from Pennsylvania, for the first time in nearly half a century.

For much of one afternoon, the booted, bearded Landesman toured the Crane Arts building on North American Street - home to dozens of artists and arts organizations - and listened attentively to talk of the arts as an economic engine, the arts as a tool of neighborhood revitalization, the arts as a key to tourism, the arts as linchpin of economic development.

But none of the city or tourism or development officials at that day's roundtable discussion mentioned the absence of direct federal support for artists. No one brought up the dissolution of Pennsylvania's individual artist fellowships, victims of the fiscal meltdown of 2008.

Rachel Zimmerman, founder of InLiquid, a visual-artist collective headquartered in the Crane Arts building, did not attend the roundtable but said after Landesman's visit that she finds the absence of fellowships and discussion of them unsettling.

"It seems that culture and art are important as long as they redevelop neighborhoods or have some quantifiable measure," Zimmerman said. "We're continually losing sight of the value of what's created, not just as a means of social or economic change, but as art. It becomes a Band-Aid to fix the ills of society and is not about the art or the artists anymore."

This has compounded a chronic problem for artists, she said. "We're really struggling."

Sarah Stolfa, 35, a photographer and executive director of the Philadelphia Photo Center, located in the Crane building, was at work when Landesman and the crowd of officials came through.

At someone's suggestion she presented him with her recent book of photographs of denizens of Philadelphia bars, The Regulars - "Love it!" Landesman pronounced - and told him a bit about the center's efforts to provide high-end, low-cost technology for working artists.

Later she said she was surprised by the sizable crowd sweeping along with Landesman and found it "frustrating" that the endowment provides no direct funding for photographers.

"It would be nice if the NEA funded individual artists, but they don't," she sighed.

Landesman, 62, a successful Broadway producer (Angels in America, Big River) who has been on the job since August, is certainly aware that the endowment's artist fellowship program effectively ended 15 years ago, after half a dozen years of withering right-wing attacks largely focused on grants to performance and visual artists.

In 1995, Congress slashed the endowment's funding to $99.5 million for the next fiscal year (it had reached a high in 1992 of about $176 million). Since then, the budget has inched up; the Obama administration managed to bring it to $167.5 million this year and proposes essentially flat funding for next year.

From that flat budget, Landesman is keen to carve $5 million for a neighborhood-development grant program dubbed Our Town. To fund this, he said the endowment would cut funds to American Masterpieces, a $10 million program aimed at bringing classic American works to broad audiences.

The endowment will continue to fund literary artists, Landesman said in an e-mail, but there are no plans to revive funding for painters, sculptors, photographers or other individual artists. (The endowment does fund a program recognizing individual achievement in opera, jazz and folk arts.)

"In many ways, this is the question for any chairman of the NEA," Landesman said. "My answer is relatively straightforward and short: We are the National Endowment for the Arts, and one of the best ways to support the arts is to support artists."

That said, however, "taking up this issue isn't at the top of my list for the next year, and it is not anything that I can change unilaterally, but it is certainly something I hope to take up before I am done with this job."

Before their demise in the 1990s, NEA fellowships were particularly significant to artists. The funds were awarded by peer panels, and their national prestige helped artists find other funding sources to pursue their work, as Landesman noted in his e-mail.

Now, thanks to the ongoing fiscal malaise, fellowship funds have vanished at the state level as well.

Philip Horn, head of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, saw his 2010 budget shrivel from an initially proposed $14.5 million to about $9.5 million, leading to elimination of state artist grants.

For 2011, Gov. Rendell has proposed a $10 million budget for the arts council.

Horn does not see fellowship funds returning soon.

"They were a really hard thing to give up," he said. "But with overall funding cut so drastically, the arts council circled its wagons around groups and organizations with greater immediate impact. As a state government agency, your purpose is to serve the people of the state.

"It was not an easy decision," he said.

When the endowment ended its fellowships 15 years ago, it had been lambasted for several years about art produced with federal dollars that critics called too gay, too lewd, too sacrilegious, too political, too incomprehensible. Or all of the above.

While the so-called culture wars have receded publicly, members of Congress still scrutinize NEA projects looking for political fodder. Just a few months ago, Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) criticized federal stimulus grants to Philadelphia's Spiral Q puppet theater (too "socially conscious") and Pig Iron Theatre (too "foulmouthed")

"The NEA doesn't look at political motivation as part of our application process," Landesman wrote. "Rather than looking back and talking about the culture wars, I want to take the ball down the field by talking proactively about what the arts can do."

In that sense, said Julie Hawkins, vice president for public policy at the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, it is critical that federal support go to "the whole ecosystem" of the arts - from individual artist to organization to state arts agency:

"Everybody is really stopping and saying, OK, the culture wars are over. This is a watershed moment. How do we move forward?"