The much beleaguered L.A. Times recently asked a number of artists/cultural figures, etc, what they might do if they ran the N.E.A. This is well timed, as the new administration is about to make a decision on the matter.
I was flattered to be asked. I often think (idly) that I should throw my hat in the ring for the job, however, now that I am middle-aged, and have spent years on the couch, I have little taste for pain of the sort experienced by Prometheus, for instance, who had his liver pecked out daily by an eagle. I am sure that is what the job would be like. Though I do like the idea of being of service to my country right now, as a sort of soldier/diplomat for culture. And I have always admired the legendary Perle Mesta, the 'hostess with the mostes (sic)", a gal who did her best to turn D.C. into Paris.
Here's my response to the Times:
Were I to throw my hat in the ring as culture czar/NEA head, I would start with the following:
I would attempt to pass legislation on a special tax dedicated to the NEA for all artists who make over half a million dollars a year from their work.
I would create a new version of the Federal Arts Project of the 1930s and '40s, which would also be funded by this surtax from the artists who have succeeded.
I would attempt to create a superfund from private donations from all studios or Apple, for instance, in order to replenish the coffers. That money would go to school arts programs, which have been slashed for years.
I would fund arts teaching positions through public/private partnerships.
I would create a national architecture czar in an effort to beautify our cities, the way André Malraux beautified Paris when he was the French minister of culture.
I would move away from the focus that the NEA has had on minor ethnocentric and folk projects and move into a broad, far-reaching series of projects that question the role of religion and commerce in the life of the nation.
I would encourage the high-tech industry to sponsor filmmakers and visual artists on projects, much as Maurice Tuchman did at LACMA in 1966 in the seminal exhibit "Art & Technology," which inspired me to become an artist.
I would present a series of lectures for senators and congressional leaders in Washington (open to the public) on the subject of the arts and their importance. It would feature speakers from the arts who had achieved master-status. I would transform the Kennedy Center Honors into the "American Masters Program."
I would encourage the Office of Faith Based Initiatives to begin a dialogue about tolerance, acceptance, democracy and theology in order to encourage a greater understanding of the powerful link between politics, religion and culture.
I would insist that a percentage of income from networks (both cable and traditional) go to fund both NPR and PBS.
I would bring symphonies to small towns.
I would wear a suit and tie all day, every day, and entertain cultural figures in my Georgetown brownstone and raise money through small private fundraisers there, in addition to initiating an Obama-like Internet fundraising machine for the arts, made up of small donors. I would solicit donations of small works on paper from important American artists to be auctioned online at this site, with money to go to the arts-in-the-schools program.
I would instruct the Smithsonian to develop a wing of political art, whose first exhibition would be about propaganda, torture and the Constitution. I would ask prominent artists and writers to curate shows across the country on this theme. It would be about the effects of war on the soul of a nation. It would be very complex and draw conclusions without simple bromides of either ideology.
I would ask Robert Hughes, Wes Anderson, Bill T. Jones, Frank Gehry, Meryl Streep, Suzan-Lori Parks, Eric Fischl and John Adams for their advice as often as possible, mainly because I admire them. Many others too, but it is too long a list. I would leave the NEA a far more powerful and vital institution than it was when I arrived.
I would make sure that I was a frequent guest at the White House, and I would always bring presents of art for the first children, so that when they grow up, they would include art into whatever magnificent endeavor for the public good that their marvelous parents helped shepherd them into.
If anyone in the administration wishes to discuss this, I am not too hard to find.