"The nation's arts organizations were among the countless businesses being threatened; many faced critical financial strains due in large part to a sudden plunge in private donations that followed the Wall Street crash. Salary support was one of the specific projects identified in the NEA's emergency grant guidelines. Symphonies and theater groups have employees who depend on paychecks just as much as auto companies and financial institutions.
Such controversies, however, are a reminder that the National Endowment for the Arts continually faces fundamental choices about how best to preserve the quality and seriousness of the arts and make people aware of their importance. There are today developments more worrisome and threatening to the agency's well being than any headline-grabbing "underground kinky art porno horror film." The time is rapidly approaching in which the NEA must once again consider whom it is intended to serve: the American artist or the American public. This is a central question with which it has wrestled over the entire course of its 44-year existence, and the way it responds now will determine whether it will continue to enjoy its current support in Congress and, indeed, whether it deserves that support at all.
The NEA has a new chairman, Rocco Landesman, appointed in May by the new president. Given the level of support from the arts community for Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign, it was expected that his choice to head the endowment would reflect the interests of artists more than the interests of the public at large. That in and of itself did not necessarily portend trouble. Landesman, like the NEA's first chairman, Roger Stevens, is a successful Broadway producer and a man with proven business sense. This should serve him well when he goes before Congress to defend the NEA's budget and in steering it clear of public controversies. But it's also tiresomely pointed out that Landesman is a man who prides himself on pulling no punches, and his supporters are looking for him and his "sharp elbows" and "my way or the highway" attitude to shake things up at the NEA, as though stirring the pot were always a productive thing to be doing."