Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Money Talks and Bullshit Walks

Claire Rice, here to slap your new year in the face with some hard-hitting journalism. 

I won second place in a bullshit contest in middle school. I don’t mean the contest was bullshit, I mean that I was the second best bullshitter among thirteen year olds in New Mexico and I was given a medal to prove it. I didn’t win another award until college. It was an award for my performance in one of the main stage plays. I received the certificate during an assembly where scholarship awards were also being given. When I went up to shake the department chair’s hand and collect my piece of paper he pulled me close and whispered in my ear: “You should have gone for the money.”

These were my first lessons in how important awards really are.

Please sir, I need a little something to fill out my CV.

Please sir, I need a little something to fill out my CV.

There is big money to be had out there. More important than the Critic’s Circle or, the best major grants are awards that recognize past achievements and the potential of future achievements. This year the Andrew Mellon Foundation gave $3.7 million dollars for playwriting residencies all across the country.  Awards went locally to ZSpace to hire Peter Sinn Nachtrieb and to Cutting Ball to hire Andrew Saito.  I haven’t talked to the Mellon Foundation myself, but I can’t help but feel this award was given in large part because of the book “Outrageous Fortune” and the national conversation about the state of new play development in the United States.  If so, it was given in an effort to effect change on a national level.  Mellon was using its money to talk.

The Mellon Foundation is privately funded and isn’t accountable to the general public for its actions.  The National Endowment for the Arts, on the other hand, was founded by Congress.  Wikipedia said, at the time this article was written, that the NEA is the largest grant-maker to arts organizations in the nation.  That fact needed a citation so, it’s hard for this piss poor journalist to say.  What I can say is that someone had the balls to type that into Wikipedia in 2012 and no one had refuted it at the time of this writing.  So, we’ll say it’s true enough.

So, what is NEA money saying?


The total budget for the NEA was $158 million dollars, which is about half of what the Washington Post says the Affordable Care Act’s website cost. The NEA keeps a wonderful search tool on all the grants it has given out since 2000 here: Since 2000 the NEA has given over 300 grants totaling over $6 million to just about 70 Bay Area theatre companies and supporting organizations. The smallest grant was in 2003 to American Conservatory Theatre for about $2000 for pre-production support for the world premiere of “Malaya” by Chay Yew, a play A.C.T. has yet to actually premier. The largest grant was made in 2013 to Berkeley Repertory for $75,000 to support Marcus Gardley’s play “The House Will Not Stand” which opens January 31.

Compare that to New York, who’s theatre companies received almost 900 grants totaling over $25 million. TCG received the largest grants consistently since 2000 with the largest sum of money being $380,000 in 2000, 2003 and 2004. The Lincoln Center received $100,000 to produce “War Horse.” The smallest sum was $5000 to support Amas Musical Theatre’s production of “Four Guys Named Jose”. Chicago, on the other hand, has only received about 195 grants totaling just over $4 million. It’s smallest grant was to the American Theatre Company for a reading of a new translation. The largest grants were for $100,000 each for Steppenwolf and the Goodman Theatre, both were to support world premier productions. Minneapolis has been awarded just over 140 grants totaling almost over $3 million dollars. The smallest was $5,000 to Pangea World Theatre to support new works. The largest was $100,000 to Mixed Blood Theatre company to support two new works.

Of course, cities all over the United States received funding, this is just a very small sampling. Also, I’ve only looked at projects that were listed under Theatre. This does not include any of the other multiple categories that theatre companies might apply under for funding (including dance and music).

No one reading this will be surprised that New York also receives the lion’s share of the NEA pot. What this spot check shows is that the majority of NEA funding is indeed going to new works and organizations that support new works. It isn’t all world premiers either, there are rolling and regional premier. Apparently “Ragtime” didn’t make its way to Austin, Texas until 2012 so it counted as a regional premier according to the NEA grant. So, this writer feels that the NEA has been saying since 2000 that it supports new works and the creators of new works. If you look over the lists and lists and lists of grantees you’ll find all of the usual suspects, but the projects being funded are incredibly diverse. The NEA grants tell us that, yes, New York is still the center of American theatre. What they also tell us is that the NEA is so full of hope. The NEA isn’t thinking about risk. So often new works are associated with risk and trouble. “Will we fill seats? No one has heard of this playwright or this play.” But the NEA is saying it believes in new works and the artists and organizations creating them.

I encourage everyone to go and download these reports and create wonderful diagrams on gender equity, ethnic diversity, zip code funding disparity and anything else and everything else. It’s all right there for your to create beautiful charts and graphs to measure all kinds of things.

And while the numbers may tell you that the NEA has hope for the future, they won’t tell you the actual future.

Rocco Landesman stepped down as chairman in November of 2012. He was appointed by President Obama in 2009. Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa is filling his role until a new Chairman can be appointed. President Obama has yet to nominate a replacement for Landesman. Also, Ralph Remington, the NEA Theatre/Musical Theatre Director, left in November. His seat is also still empty. The senate will vote to confirm Janet Yellen to the Federal Reserve on January 6. I’m sure finding someone to fill the empty seats at the NEA is totally on the to do list. Probably.

There is more to worry about than just a slow bureaucracy having a hard time catching up. After the government shutdown and a continuing power struggle, politicians on both side of the isle are considering what should be considered “necessary” funding. Writers like Rick Smith, who asks if America still needs the NEA since we now have Kickstarter, aren’t helping. The Washington Post found arts administrators across the board are feeling edgy about the vacancies “Without a leader who can champion its initiatives — or defend its mere existence — the NEA flails and tends to lose funding, experts say.” You can read the full article here.

The NEA is a common and easy target for Republicans, Social Conservatives, and budget cutters. And since theatre organizations are generally hinging their budgets on $10,000 NEA grants, it’s doubtful that there is a lobbying voice that will be able stand up for the NEA in Washington with any real power. And looking at the top lobbying clients, I don’t think any of them will stand up for us either. $158 million dollars isn’t a large piece of the pie when thinking about the national budget, and it’s possible that the smallness of the number is what makes it seem so unnecessary. Too little funds are spread too thin to too many places. American Conservatory Theatre received $30,000 for the production of “The Orphan of Zhao” from the NEA. It received $326,000 from San Francisco Grants for the Arts to support the entire season.

Go ahead and plan your Oscar Awards party and scoff at the ridiculousness of it all. I also look forward to sitting with you at a bar and complain about how awards are strange and meaningless. As Theatre Bay Area gears up for its first year of excellence awards, I look forward to the debates about how much weight a piece of paper or a plaque should be given. Only time will tell if new local accolades will mean increased funding opportunities. Where does legitimacy come from? What comes first: the accolades or the funding? Is there a funding source that carries more legitimacy than another?

Lastly, if the NEA isn’t seen as a legitimate way to spend government funding, how do we change that?

Should we give them an award?

One comment on “Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Money Talks and Bullshit Walks

  1. […] the importance of arts in America; the paradox being – as my Thursday column predecessor frequently pointed out – that funding for those arts is harder and harder to come by. The way a nation treats the arts […]

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