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Inside Out at the NEA

by Jeff Gates


One example out of many I found shows the extent to which artists are fusing art with economy-based outreach projects. In re-evaluating its mission and programs, the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) of Santa Fe, NM was interested in increasing its ability to reach young audiences. They found that less than 10 percent of their audience was under 21 and that local schools were not devoting many resources to teaching art.

In looking at this problem and possible solutions, CCA also recognized that traditional art events weren't attractive to young people, in part, because teens weren't very familiar with contemporary art and its practice. With partial NEA funding, CCA decided to develop a Teen Center (now scheduled to open in the fall of 1991). It is intended as an interesting environment for young people to learn about art--one that will offer programs to help build teens' self-esteem in an informal setting.

The Teen Center will serve approximately 6300 teenagers from varied cultural backgrounds. In order to ensure the teens' input into this project, CCA set up programming committees made up of students from each of the local high schools.

The centerpiece of the Teen Center will be the "Electronic Cafe," a club-like facility that will include a restaurant run by a processional staff. As part of this project a teen work/study program will instruct in nutrition, budgeting, purchasing and food preparation. Video and taped music programming and a gallery will also be part of the cafe. The Center will also have a professional radio studio, donated by a local radio station, in which teens will produce a variety of music and talk programs.

A project this extensive could not be carried out without the cooperation and support of the local community. Over a dozen local residents, from a foundation director to school administrators and teachers, serve on the Teen Center Steering Committee and are helping to build financial and political bridges between CCA and the community. NEA assistance often serves as a catalyst for local funding and support.

text During my research, I was constantly amazed by undertakings such as this one. Often, I felt these endeavors surely must be common knowledge and that my work was only restating the obvious. Yet, during this time of constant NEA scrutiny, little of this good work is making it into the news. In part, the fault lays with the media and its attraction to the sensational. However, the Endowment and the arts community at large must also be held accountable.

It is clear that NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer is "under the gun." He finds himself between the "rock" of Congress and many on the right who would like to mold cultural policy into their own image or eliminate government support of culture altogether, and the "hard place" of artists and others who believe that government support, rather than merely being a subsidy, fosters an openness and a cultural diversity that Frohnmayer has stated are the agency's goals.

Yet, under his direction the Endowment has chosen to consistently react to criticism by attempting to appease its congressional critics rather than taking a more positive approach. By doing so, he has alienated many in the arts community and has entered a dangerous political arena. Both the Independent Commission, set up by the President and Congress to study changes in the agency, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources have recently endorsed NEA reauthorization with substantial changes in the peer panel process and the amount of power the Chairman has to decide how NEA funds will be spent. His gamble to save the Endowment may pay off, but at what cost?


© 1990 Jeff Gates. No reproduction in whole or in part may be used without prior consent of the author.

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