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Funding The In Between Places

Scott Walters over at Theatre Ideas has been looking at how the National Endowment for the Arts distributed funds for its “Our Town” grant program. In the last three posts on the topic, he has been critical of the way the granting process is structured and executed, perceiving a surprising bias against rural communities given that it takes its name from Thornton Wilder’s play set in a rural location.

Scott’s initial criticism sort of deflated my sails when, by his criteria, the award to the Wallkill River School, Inc. in Orange County, NY where I grew up was not being made to a rural arts organization given the population of the county. I was excited to see that their project whose purpose is “To support the development of economic strategies for long-term, sustainable partnerships between the arts and agriculture in Orange County,” was funded.

I have to concede that the population has increased quite a bit since I was growing up and its psychological distance from New York City has diminished since then. (Though it still qualifies as “way upstate” in minds of NYC residents.)

I was also happy to see that the Trey McIntyre Project (TMP), headquartered in Boise, ID had gotten a grant. (Full disclosure, we will be presenting the dance company in Spring 2012.) Though it isn’t rural per se, Boise qualifies as fly over country in many people’s minds. I have found Trey McIntyre’s decision to locate there rather than NY, Chicago or L.A. to be commendable—and so has the population of Boise who treat them like celebrities. The group has made great efforts to expand the concept of a dance company’s place in the community by appearing anywhere and everywhere from flash mob like performances to dancing at the local NBA farm team games to creating their own art installation in a hotel room (forward to 3:30 to hear McIntyre talk about the installation)

I was also very happy to see a local burgeoning effort in support of Hawaiian culture was funded as well. I can probably devote an entry explaining how valuable this award is going to be in planting seeds for greater things.

All this being said, I felt Walters did a credible job in his entry today arguing that many elements of the application and review process placed rural arts organizations at a disadvantage.

As Walters acknowledge in his analysis on Monday, the NEA did make an attempt to enlist the participation of arts centers in rural areas and didn’t receive a very strong response. However, in reviewing the comments on his failed grant application, Walter notes that the criteria being used to evaluate his application wasn’t appropriate for the project he was proposing.

“When I consulted the NEA as to why my own “Our Town” grant was not funded, the notes from the review committee focused on excellence: WHO is going to be providing the art, and what are their credentials? Notice that my proposal was for a participatory arts program, and so the artists would be members of the community, not imported “professionals” from outside the community. Participatory arts, as the NEA knows from having recently published it own studies on the subject, is about enhancing the creativity of the citizenry. Credentials and press coverage are irrelevant.”

He also notes that since rural arts organizations don’t have large staffs, the three weeks notice they were given between being invited to apply and the deadline was barely enough time to compose a proposal. When they made it past the first stage, they were given only a month to assemble a complete proposal, an immense task given the length of the application and the limited staff with which to do it. These small staffs may also lack the experience and advisers to guide them in infusing the grants with the polish that granters like the NEA have come to expect.

I actually faced a similar situation here. A grant program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities specifically focused on community colleges was announced in June with a deadline in August. One of the things they are looking for is involving up to 12 other colleges in a partnership. So not only do you need to try to assemble a work group of professors and administrators on your own campus during the summer after everyone has scattered to the winds, you have to get buy in from the same nearly non-existent groups on other campuses as well!

Via the citation of a comment by Ian David Moss, Walters wonders if the NEA is suited and equipt to directly pursue its mandate of geographically diverse funding. He discards Moss’ idea of directing more funding to trusted partners in rural states and letting them make decisions in favor of asking the NEA to become more accountable by cultivating stronger relationships with organization that work closely with rural arts groups and making a better effort to recruit people with an understanding of rural arts operations to serve on grant review panels.

While I disagree with Walters’ criteria about what constitutes rural, I am generally with him about the need to make the grant process more accessible to arts organizations in small communities. A decade ago, heck, even 5 years ago, I would have said the NEA faced an immense task trying to identify and reach out to rural organizations. But with email and social media, it is fairly easy to create focused email lists and Twitter feeds with which to deliver information to these groups.

It is just a matter of enlisting the rural arts service organizations that provide support to these groups to assist them in making them aware of the channels the NEA will be using to communicate with them. As Walters suggests, a time table and structure that recognizes both the limitations and different array of opportunities specific to rural arts organizations. Given how few organizations applied, even an increase of participation by a handful of groups will allow the NEA to claim a many fold percent growth in rural program support.

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