Smart smart smart…

Bill Ivey, the former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts started an interesting debate at a news aggregate/blogging site about the arts and culture. It’s a daily must-read. I really like where Ivey is going with this:

Doug worries that if we take on any policy issues other than those that directly affect our core constituency — nonprofit arts organizations and artists who work mostly in that world — we’ll be out of our depth and get things wrong, unable to choose sides responsibly.

True, there are some ambiguous situations that arise, but many issues are pretty clear, especially if we always ask, “Will policy x enhance the expressive lives of individuals and communities by making heritage and the tools of creativity more available, or will the policy increase costs, erect barriers, or limit access?”  After all, we are as smart as leaders in any field, and little of this is rocket science: create low-power FM outlets in urban areas, almost certainly a good thing; allow one company to own 10% of all radio stations; probably bad (as the Clear Channel experiment demonstrated); abandon Net Neutrality to allow advertisers to steer online searches; almost certainly bad.  Yes, there are some really thorny issues (Google Books is one) but I absolutely believe that the conversation around these issues will be better if the smart folks who have mostly thought about museum attendance and foundation funding turn their attention to a wider set of issues.  If we don’t, the part of the arts scene that we know best will end up as roadkill smashed flat as public policy speeds along the highway to market hegemony.

Now I’m not a conspiracy theorist (really; I’m not) but if I were it would be easy to frame the entire nonprofit arts scene as a plot to keep smart arts people from ever thinking about things like copyright, union agreements, media ownership, or mergers in the recording, film, and television, or live performance industries. They give the NEA an extra ten million some years, and it’s all “high-fives;” the next year they take it away, and we spend thousands on seminars to help us cope with the funding crisis.  All the while, bigger forces are quietly tying up the Internet, expanding the footprint of IP, while allowing heritage assets to be locked up in the vaults of a few merged media giants.  The nonprofit scene can be viewed as a medium-sized sandbox in which arts people are asked to play for a pittance while mainstream policy actors use legislation, legal interpretation, and regulation to expand controlled revenue streams.

But I’m not, just not, a conspiracy theorist…

He’s absolutely right. It’s something I’ve often worried about, me who has pretty much consistently worked in the cultural and nonprofit sector all my working life. What if it is a sandbox, or better yet, a pink collar ghetto? (Or a white liberal guilt ghetto for that matter? I do feel like there’s a certain expectation or lack of one that people who are bright in the nonprofit culture sector can’t be thrown in with the sharks everywhere else. “Well, they’re smart but they’re not smart smart.” Obviously Bill Ivey is smart smart, and so are a lot of people I’ve worked with in my life. The artsjournal thread is exploring whether people are ghettoizing themselves, in this case, maybe thinking that they’re not so smart after all. I’m glad Ivey is calling them out…


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