Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Can't touch the New Deal

I'm behind in my postings for the dumb screened-porch, but I had something more pressing on my mind for this entry. I got an email from Vermont Arts Council, famous local grant-awarding organization, about a $250,000 allotment from the federal government, to be managed by VAC, for the purpose of distribution to non-profit arts organizations to: retain employees that would be lost, due to economic conditions, or to pay fees for previously engaged artists which the organization could no longer afford.

You can read the details here.

Now, here's what bugging me. (You thought perhaps I wrote this to get the word out? I didn't.) It's not that I fault the government for spending the money. $250,000 is peanuts. And it's not that I have anything against VAC, non-profit arts orgs, or perish-forbid, artists themselves. But I find this to be not a very useful, or efficient way to direct the flow money, and ultimately spend it.

The VAC plans on giving grants of $5000 to small orgs, and $10,000 to large ones. Let me break this down, in terms of payment:

A small organization will be able to pay ONE employee, full time, for about 6 months, at a bare-minimum wage ($5.25 an hour, about). Or in VT, since minimum is about $8, they will be able to support a full-time employee for about 3 and a half months. A large organization might pay a part-time employee (let's change it up here) for 6 to 12 months (depending on hours)--but the part-time employee had better be supported by a wage-earning spouse, or have a nice bank account already. A small or large organization may choose to pay for an artist-in-residence, or performance artists who are already booked. Read: one/few, no new hires, no new work in this budget.

My problem is not with the funding itself--fine, it has a purpose, and the purpose is sound enough. But the funds 1) are not enough to retain employees, and 2) go through a network of orgs before reaching the artist--if they reach the artist at all. Employees to be retained (not that there's anything wrong with this, but...) may not be artists at all--even if they are important to the function of the organization.

What I'm ultimately getting at here is... probably shockingly socialist. But once upon a time, the government used it's own (well, taxpayer, ultimately) money to fund DIRECT arts programs. I'm not saying there wasn't bureaucratic red-tape there too. But I, artist, would have been able to apply to one of many programs, and possibly be HIRED to do the work I AM GOOD AT. And thousands like me. Not to become an administrative assistant at a non-profit arts organization, or an event-planner for an arts festival. An actual artist, doing work for the government, in or on or at public sites and structures, or for the public good.

Instead, because we wouldn't want to seem too socialist, we funnel money through lots of little organizations, which each have an operating budget and at least 1 employee, and what's left of the money goes to the promotion of a select few artists, who are then thrown on the mercy of the public market/economy to either make it or fail, sink or swim--get their art purchased, or not. I would rather be a wage-earner building, painting murals, collecting oral histories, recording folk songs or acting in a play for the public benefit, than scramble around looking for ever-decreasing grant money and hoping that some buyer will help me break even on my art materials, while I work full-time at a dead-end job to make ends meet. Perhaps this, in someone's mind, is "on the dole," and perhaps in a lot of minds, I'm saying something unAmerican. But to my mind this is trickle-down economics as applied to non-profit organizations and their recipients. I didn't like government funding of charities for the same reason--not on religious grounds, but because I think it is a great way to squander money.

No non-profit--heck, not even the government--intends to squander money. But the more levels, and channels, and streams and flow-charts you add to something, the more money gets diverted to operational costs--the costs of business. Little by little, the stream gets smaller.


Kate said...

Well said. A similar scheme (though not specifically arts-based) was proposed here: offering small businesses something like £2000 to take on and train a new employee. And yet, that money will hardly cover the cost of training, much less cover a salary, and the small business, the one which was struggling before all of this, finds itself unable to retain this new employee (or has to sack someone else instead).

I'm not convinced that the motivation was pure over here (I rarely am when it comes to politics in general, though I am astounded that people here actually think the Tories will do a better job just now) and it seemed to me like an insulting token effort. And I'm not sure how much has actually be done with regards to this. But your point about endless middle-men and bureaucracies is a good one.

And hey, what's wrong with a bit of socialism every now and again?! :)

Miriam said...

Wow, a comment! I never get comments! (Hi Kate) I should move to Europe and join a party, or something... but I will make do with the Democrats here. It's tough for me, because I support a lot of the work done by non-profits, but when I worked for one, I wished that it had been subsumed into some larger preservation NP.

As it was, I hated running around begging for money, which would have been easier if it was something humanitarian, like Habitat for Humanity or the Alzheimer's Assoc. Instead, I found it hard to ask... I wished someone would step up and offer an endowment, so we could focus on projects and not office budget/payroll.

Today's multi-millionaires/billionaires slacking off! Well, it will be a few years before they get comfortable again! And this administration can't win, of course, between spending and saving, and of course you must know poor Obama can't get a consensus about Iraq/Afghanistan/Prisons et al. What a thankless job. So, anyway, I'm not as peeved as yesterday--but I guess if I was the VAC, I'd make fewer and larger grants. Who can do anything much with $5000, or 2000 pounds over there.

Do your keyboards have the pound in place of the dollar over the 4 key? (On a less serious topic!)

Kate said...

I'll respond to the easy bit first - the pound sign! I'm still using the Dell my parents bought me when I started my PhD, so I don't have a pound sign (I do have a shortcut to it for Word, but it doesn't work online). I can't remember where it is on UK keyboards - I think above the 4, but there's a dollar sign in the number row as well. The @ gets displaced to where the " is on ours (because ' are more common for quotes). It's like bilingual typing sometimes switching between keyboards!

Phew. That was longer than I expected. :)

You should definitely move to Europe. Or at least come visit. But UK politics aren't much better than in the US (so don't move here). And we don't have the benefit of an exciting new PM, only the inevitable prospect of Tory leadership.

I see what you mean about arts v humanitarian nonprofits and I certainly relate to the funding frustrations of work in a np. I've worked/volunteered for a couple of humanitarian nonprofits, and it's so difficult to have to define success and value of services solely by the number of people who come through the door. It's a bit like living in two worlds at once - you have to play the game of those funding you, but remember the real reason why you're doing what you're doing and not jeopardise the well-being of those who truly need your services.

I suppose with the arts, it is even more difficult because the 'goodness' or efficacy of the project can be less tangible or visible (in the way it affects people, or the way it affects people can be at a greater remove - I'm not expressing myself very well here!)