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How to Spend Taxpayer Money

I’m compelled to agree with Foodleking, in that the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of funding the arts. (I don’t have as much of a problem with state funding, though, but that’s another story.)

Set aside the fact that art subsidies are outside the bounds of limited government defined in the Constitution, along with just about everything else that Washington does. In practice, the program is open to all kinds of abuses, and it creates a culture of victimization with those “artistes” who equate a lack of government funding with censorship, which is abject nonsense. Free speech protects your right to express yourself. It doesn’t guarantee that the government will pay you for it.

But if the government has to fund the arts, I’m glad they got me to do it. And I’m more than willing to rise above principle if I can get an occasional free trip to DC.

Anyway, I was on a panel with six other theatre professionals from all over the country. I was there as a designated layperson, and it was a little embarrassing to go around the room and introduce ourselves and say what we do.

“Hi! I’m Artsy McFartsy! I’m the artistic director of a big, important theatre in New York City!”

“Hi! I’m Sally Superstar! I’m a Broadway actress with a resume as long as my arm!”

And then me.

“Hi, I’m Stallion Cornell. I rent vacation condos in Kauai.”

Everyone else was probably more artistically accomplished, but I took comfort in the fact that I probably make more money than all of them. A life in the arts is not a particularly lucrative one, even for people at the highest levels thereof.

I was almost certainly the only Republican in the room, too, although the entire experience was surprisingly apolitical. There were no “Piss Christ” or Mapplethorpe S&M grant requests. The only time anything remotely political came into the equation was when people praised arts groups for “non-traditional casting” and “diversity” excellence. I think the word “diversity” is woefully abused in most political settings. When politicians or university officials use the term, they’re intensely concerned with irrelevant skin pigmentation differences and shun the genuine diversity of ideas.

But that was neither here nor there. I think non-traditional casting is usually a good thing – once upon a time, I cast interracial leads in Guys and Dolls in lily-white St. George, Utah – so this didn’t bug me all that much.

I’m bound by contract not to reveal the names of the applicants, the grant level amounts, or any real specificity about what we discussed until the awards are announced on April 1. But I can, hopefully, provide you with a few little tidbits you might find interesting.

At one point, I questioned whether one group, which had a multimillion-dollar endowment and great ticket sales, really needed a grant from the NEA. The answer came back that the NEA does not consider financial need when they decide to fund grants. In fact, if your organization is financially unstable, they are far less likely to get a grant. The NEA, I was told, “funds the art they want to be associated with.”

At first, I was taken aback, but I liked that idea more and more as I thought about it. NEA grants are more valuable than the dollar amounts attached to them. They’re essentially the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in the arts world, and they enhance the stature of an organization in the eyes of potential donors.

It all comes back to the principle that I kept hammering home when I was an artistic director for a struggling arts company – people fund vision, not need.

Along those lines, I was disappointed in how few original musical theatre works were being presented. Most of the requests were to fund mainstream musicals – Guys and Dolls, Damn Yankees, and, surprisingly, three requests for the musical Big River. Those who asked for money to fund original works met with an enthusiastic response from everyone on the panel, although some of the work samples changed our minds. “Original” is not always synonymous with “good.”

On a lark, I brought a copy of my own original musical, hoping it would fall out of my bag and someone would say “My! What’s this? Doesn’t this need to be funded, too?”

Yeah, swell idea. It stayed in my bag the whole trip.

All in all, my trip to DC was way too much fun. I ended the day visiting an old friend from USC that I hadn’t seen in almost 15 years. I met her family, and her three-year-old son took the occasion to put Band-Aids on both of my thumbs, which I forgot to take off until the following morning.

Summing up: I was in Chicago, and Languatron didn’t show. Wuss.

Hey, Languatron!
Languatron: Anatomy of a Wuss-Out

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