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A Nation's Shame: Bailing Out Wall Street By The Bucketful While Supporting Our Great Art Traditions With An Eyedropper

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Incredibly, Wall Street is being showered with billions upon billions, even though they have brought the nation to its knees, destroyed the savings of millions, wreaked havoc on the nations homeowners, and crushed our confidence in the capitalist impulse that had been a meritocracy and a beacon unto others. Our financial sector has become a perverse exemplar of a system of vested and influential interests that have stacked the game to such one sided advantage that it has lost all credibility.

Billions have been showered on them with barely the most perfunctory oversight. Banks both domestic and foreign are being paid out 100 cents on the dollar for derivatives that would barely fetch 20 cents in the open markets. This to the tune of tens of billions shoveled out without a modicum of restraint permitting the perpetrators of this disaster to walk away with "year-end bonuses'" and so called "retention fees" running into the hundreds of millions at AIG alone. As though the surest way to be awarded in today's financial environment is to create a financial implosion. And all hands of the governing class will be on deck bailing them out for having navigated the nation into an iceberg, handing out ever more millions along with lifejackets while the perpetrators of this disaster are busy, busy assigning themselves seats on the lifeboats, away from women and children.

But when it comes to the arts and arts institutions, a brave and brilliant part of our societal whole that has done so much to define our nation and our culture, that has brought us important moments of personal joy and insight as well as communal celebration vastly enriching our lives, Washington and the good burghers of the Beltway become scandalously obtuse.

The government has set aside $50 million with massive strings attached, from these vast trillion dollar plus stimulus monies being spread around. Of these $50m, $20m is to be parceled to state and regional arts agencies, leaving $30 million to be distributed to arts groups through the National Endowment of the Arts (N.E.A.) . The N.E.A. has already received well over 2000 applications from cultural organizations throughout the land.

Bringing insult to injury, the funds, to be distributed in stipends of $25,000 to $50,000, will only be doled out to pay for salaries or to pay contractual workers. It cannot be used for general operating expenses. Lucky are those art organizations located in southern climates as they only have limited heating bills. Humiliatingly, the funds will only be reimbursed or made available by specific request 30 days before they are incurred which in turn will result in hundreds of cash requests with extensive reporting requirements. This from the same governing class that permitted AIG to pour $160,000,000 into the pockets of its astute managers, and the likes of John Thain of Merrill Lynch /Bank of America rushing to parcel out year-end bonuses of nearly $4 billion, a disbursement that would shortly thereafter be borne by its shotgun merger partner, Tarp laden Bank of America. These bonuses were awarded to his loyal staff that "earned" their windfalls by bringing in a $27.5 billion Merrill Lynch loss for the year. An act that outrageously held up to public ridicule what had been a common perception of the inherent fairness of our system's standards of risk/reward.

Taking a page from their brethren at Treasury, whereby in formulating the operational agenda of the near trillion dollar TALF program, the Treasury Department had initially tried to restrict their dealings to the ultimate insiders and Tarp beneficiaries such as the likes of PIMCO and Goldman Sachs, until being shamed into broadening the universe of who would be eligible. The N.E.A. in turn, has limited eligibility to only those who had received a grant from the Endowment over the last four years. This has caused the likes of such wonderful and worthy institutions as the Bronx Museum of the Arts to be cut from the list according to the New York Times (N.E.A. Struggles... 4.11.09). "It was a huge blow for us" its executive director Holly Block was quoted as saying, money that would have been used to pay for a curator, security guards and maintenance staff.

As a former member of the Endowment's National Council, I have always been astounded by the hesitant and grudging support our government gives the arts and its infrastructure. The halting beneficence in these past turbulent and frightful months where private giving has fallen off dramatically for many of these organizations, speaks volumes. Perhaps the moment has come for all in the art world to simply say to Washington --"We are given so little respect. What we do we will continue doing, because it is our passion, it is our existence. If you feel our contribution to the fabric of the nation's life is so limited that you can continue your patronizing ways toward us, time and again, and especially at this moment of particular hardship and need, perhaps it is time for you to just keep your money. We will muddle through as best we can because we must!"