02/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Culture Zohn: Getting Creative in '09

Lost amidst billionaires throwing themselves under trains or slitting their wrists with box-cutters is the quieter despair of arts organizations and artists all over the country.

Artists and arts institutions live from hand to mouth most of the time, alas; they are scrappy and resourceful, generally uncomplaining and used to being valued less than bureaucrats, bankers or engineers.

The federal budget is a testament to the place of culture in the national pecking order: long a line-item stepchild, the Arts Endowment is perpetually in funding free-fall. Though many other agencies have hidden mechanisms for art (embassies, for example, buy art, architects are commissioned by the GSA to design courthouses), or are disguised as historic or education initiatives, alt funding for arts organizations on the dole is wildly erratic.

Calls, which reappear almost every election cycle, for a cabinet-level position for the arts as it exists in most other nations in the world, have even recently been heard from stars like Quincy Jones, who himself volunteered to do it on Charlie Rose.

While a cultural czar can be a good thing, it's only a good thing if there is money to back it up. The total budget last year for the National Endowment for the Arts was $144 million -- probably not even enough to buy one wing of a stealth bomber (last reported at $1.5 billion).

Others have called for an arts bailout, figuring if the car guys can go to Washington on their jets and beg , why can't we take that new Vamoose bus service that costs only $25 to sing for our suppers?

For all our failings on the federal level, the state and local scrappiness hasn't entirely been a bad thing. At the New York State Council on the Arts in the seventies, we would sit around the table moaning and groaning about our paltry piece of the state or federal budgets and yet some enormously creative institutions were launched (PS 1/Clocktower, BAM), precursors of more recent recycled spaces -- museums like Dia and Mass Moca.

Of course it hasn't helped when big beneficiaries like the Smithsonian have been embroiled in scandal, but then why should arts administrators be any different from sketchy justice department honchos or crooked financial titans?

Creativity is so often forced to go underground and rely on itself that while it should not have to be the norm, the downturn may not be as frightening for us.

What is new is the fact that the rest of the economy has suddenly found itself in the same soup: car dealers, doctors, and yes, even bankers have their hands out the same way we are usually do. (Wouldn't you love to see Bernie Madoff on guitar and Rick Wagoner on keyboard playing for tips down in the subway?!)

Socrates divvied up art into three categories: "one which uses, another which makes, a third which imitates them." Lewis Hyde, a poet who has written about and studied what art is for has himself focused on the study of gift exchange, the idea that it's the giving and passing on of gifts that creates value. That puts artists, and creative people in category two, the makers, but dependent on category one (most of the rest of us), the receivers. That means we have to be there, and be ready to receive the gifts and careful we don't fall into category three, the impostors -- consumers only worried about how much something is worth in the marketplace.

I've been trying to get a handle on whether our Pres Elect cares as much about the arts as basketball (I don't think so, though you shouldn't have to choose) and I know he has some pretty big fish to fry right off the bat (saving people's houses, health and education) as well as helping the middle east and Africa from imploding.

His campaign put out a statement early on
which, perhaps anticipating the realities of the economic downturn, focused on art in education and cultural exchange and which ducked the core issues that confront artists when they get up each day and need a place to create their work, to show it, and get paid to do it.

Many museums and performing arts organizations know better than to look to Washington as they account for expected shortfalls in commitments from donors and they are calling upon their trustees to again be creative in these hard times, e.g. supporting ticketing discounts, free evenings etc.

Though the Obamas do apparently have a fave musician, Stevie Wonder, a look at the programming for '09 (already in place for some time) at many arts institutions reflects some of the change that the Obamas have inevitably seeded on their path to the White House.

In the coming weeks, the Culture Zohn will take a closer look at creative people and places of all stripes in a new series called Off the C(H)uff, as we remind ourselves that you aren't only what you eat or drive or where you bank but of the gifts that we receive from those amongst us who share their vision.