Thursday, February 17, 2011

Say goodbye to the NEA Opera Honors

Livid. That's how I would describe my mood right now ... livid - but, ultimately not surprised.

I regret to inform you, my Chiclets, that after only 3 years in existence, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is being forced by budget constraints to give the ol' heave-ho to the NEA Opera Honors. That's right - after the 2011 awards (preparation for which is already underway) we can say goodbye to the NEA publicly honoring the people who make opera great - and ultimately, publicly honoring opera itself.

What's more? After 30 years ... THIRTY YEARS ... there will no longer be the Jazz Masters Awards, either. Nor will there be special recognition through the National Heritage Fellowships.

Gone. Buh-bye. See ya.

The NEA issued this statement through a spokesperson:
The NEA has a proud tradition of honoring master artists in folk and traditional arts, jazz, and more recently, opera. With the Fiscal Year 2012 appropriations request, the agency hopes to be able to extend these honors and the accompanying support to the full range of American artists, including dancers, theater artists, other musicians, film makers, and visual artists.

While the NEA Jazz Masters, National Heritage Fellowships, and Opera Honors will not continue as stand alone programs, the NEA American Artists of the Year proposal will still honor jazz, folk and traditional arts, and opera and will include them as part of a fuller spectrum of American art forms and artists.

The NEA American Artists of the Year designations will include fellowships for the recipients, just as the various honors programs have done in the past. In addition to honoring artists for their lifetime achievements, the NEA American Artists of the Year proposal hopes to also acknowledge the contributions that some artists are making while still in the middle of their careers.

It is important to note that the process is already underway for the 2012 Jazz Masters (which we expect to present at an awards concert and ceremony in January 2012), as well as for the 2011 National Heritage Fellowships and Opera Honors (which will be presented at two ceremonies this coming fall).

Moving forward, it simply seemed correct to extend the NEA's honoring of American artists to as full a spectrum as possible.
Going forward, the NEA American Artists of the Year award will remove specific reference to Jazz, Folk, and Opera - being given only in two separate categories: Performing Arts (Dance/Music/Opera/Musical Theater/Theater) and Visual Arts (Design/Media Arts/Museums/Visual Arts).

Additionally, the awards will no longer only be in recognition for a lifetime of arts greatness:
NEA American Artists of the Year honorific awards would be made not only to individuals who have devoted a lifetime to the advancement of artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation, but to individuals who at mid-career have made an extraordinary contribution to the arts.
You know what I'd like to know? How on Earth does the NEA think they are going to be able to compare artists from the worlds of opera, jazz, folk, musical theater and straight theater with dancers, composers, conductors and the like? How can you compare an opera singer who is "mid-career" with a jazz great who has been at it for 50+ years? How can you compare an unknown, but seasoned and wildly successful ballet dancer with a young, outlandish conductor who is known the world over?

It's craziness, I tell you. And the fact that our only national arts advocacy group is being forced into this is absolutely reprehensible. How are they being forced into this? I'm glad you asked.


The NEA is requesting through appropriations a budget of $146.255 million for Fiscal Year 2012. This is a reduction of $21.245 million or 13% from Fiscal Year 2010 levels. It just so happens that the 2012 level is dialed back to the 2008 level ... 2008 being the year that the NEA Opera Honors was created. Now, just so you're aware, the Appropriations Request break down is as follows:

$66.208 million for Direct Endowment Grants
$44.139 million for State/Regional Partnerships
$5 million for the Our Town initiative
$2.845 million for program support efforts, and
$28.063 million for salaries and expenses.

Now, the NEA does contend on their website that the money listed above "both sustains and develops large scale projects with significant national reach..." giving grants to further performance in our country. I'm not sure I can fully accept that idea. When you read through some the content of their website, you quickly see that the majority of their operatic funding occurred in the past. Furthermore, you see that the NEA Opera Honors was very much their way of saying "see, we still love opera and instead of handing out cash to perpetuate it, we're going to honor greatness."

Fantastic! I fully support honoring operatic greatness. But, now that the NEA Opera Honors are going away ... what's next?

I encourage you to read the NEA's Appropriations Request ... it's very eye-opening. And since we're on the subject, let us discuss for a brief moment the section titled Salaries and Expenses ... more specifically, I'd like to direct your attention to the section on page 54 marked "Rent".
The Agency expects to be charged approximately $2.829 million in rent by the GSA (General Services Administration) for office space in the Old Post Office Building (OPOB) in FY 2012.
So, let me get this straight: our government is appropriating money for office space to be rented ... and the rent is to be paid ... back to our government's GSA? The NEA has to ask the government for money to give back to the government for office space? Why in the hell doesn't the government just give the NEA some office space that it already owns and call it a day?

I can't even begin to get into that travesty.

Here's the bottom line, Ladies and Gents ... in our society, where the arts are looked upon as a luxury item for the "liberal elite" and vast gobs of money continues to buy political power as well as judicial power, we will never see the arts elevated to the stature they deserve. In our society, where we stand by and watch our Speaker of the House advocate for our military to spend $450 million on building jet engines that the Department of Defense neither wants nor needs simply because the engines are built in his district, we will never see the funding that is needed to perpetuate a thriving arts community. An arts community that has the potential to be an spectacular catalyst for expression, national pride, personal growth, joy, peace and yes ... JOBS, too.

$450 million for jet engines the military doesn't want ... or $167.5 million to keep the NEA funded at it's current budget level. Yea, I think it's pretty %*^#!&$ stupid, too.

National Endowment of the Arts: Art Works. Sort of.

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