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Guiding Culture: Olga Viso on the National Council on the Arts

Established in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms, the National Endowment for the Arts is charged with supporting cultural excellence in arts “both new and established.” This effort secured the belief that along with increased assistance to education, elderly care, and ending poverty, support for the arts was paramount to the […]

Olga Viso. Photo by Cameron Wittig, courtesy the Walker Art Center

Olga Viso. Photo: Cameron Wittig

Established in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms, the National Endowment for the Arts is charged with supporting cultural excellence in arts “both new and established.” This effort secured the belief that along with increased assistance to education, elderly care, and ending poverty, support for the arts was paramount to the quality of life for American citizens.

Since then, the NEA has given more than $4 billion in grants across all artistic disciplines, aid which continues to keep the US at the forefront of world culture. However, the art created with these grants has not been without controversy. Famously targeted during the culture wars by conservative groups during the late ’80s and early ’90s, the NEA’s very existence remains a public discussion. Although most citizens still believe the arts benefit our shared quality of life and aid in job creation, the budget specifically allotted to supporting art continues to be a contentious subject (a disproportionately large contention considering that the NEA budget is half of what the federal government knowingly spent on outdated computer systems in 2013). Perhaps obscured by these controversies is the organization’s current goals, missions, and operations, and how the NEA continues to shape the cultural efforts of our country.

These unique challenges were brought into focus during a recent discussion with Walker Executive Director Olga Viso, who was nominated by President Obama to serve on the advisory board of the National Council on the Arts, the NEA’s advisory body. During her just-begun six-year term, Viso will serve alongside 15 other members charged with making recommendations to the NEA chair on grant awards and agency policies and procedures, as well as recommending awardees of the prestigious National Medal of Arts to the president. Here Viso discusses her appointment to body whose distinctive (and difficult) mission is “bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education.”

Nathaniel Smith: Can you speak about the highlights of your first member’s meeting? And what are your expectations for your six-year term?

Olga Viso: A highlight of my first meeting in March was participating in the closed-door process of nominating potential awardees to the president for the National Medal of the Arts. It was an invigorating and inspiring discussion about what qualifies as excellence in American culture across the artistic disciplines. In terms of the future, I’m excited to work with a new NEA chairperson and be involved in shaping policy with a new leader.

Smith: What does your appointment mean to the Walker, in particular, and to the Midwest as a whole?

Viso: I think it has been very meaningful and important to those of us involved in culture, both inside and outside Minnesota, to have the leader of a progressive, forward-thinking contemporary arts institution have a voice on the National Council.

Midwesterners have had a long history of serving on the National Council since its founding in the 1960s. A number of Walker staff and trustees, including Walker Emeritus Director Martin Friedman, philanthropist Kenneth Dayton, and Vocal Essence artistic founder/director Philip Brunelle are all past members. Minnesota US Rep. Betty McCollum and Wisconsin’s Sen. Tammy Baldwin are currently ex-officio congressional members. I was appointed concurrently with Ranee Ramaswamy, founder of Ragamala Dance, whose company will be performing at the Walker the weekend of May 15 with a new commission.

Drawing Club at the Walker, part of Open Field 2011

Drawing Club at the Walker, part of Open Field 2011

Smith: Perhaps this is more coincidence than an intended consequence, but do you see your appointment (along with Ramaswamy and Houston-based artist Rick Lowe) as indicating a value placed on what is happening in the center of the country and perhaps a shift from the coast-dominated view of art?

Viso: The Midwest has always had a valued place on the Council. Indeed, it has typically been comprised of individuals representing all regions of the country. This is an important value for the NEA and also guides how its grant review panel members are selected. Many of us, like Ranee, also have a history of serving on NEA grant review panels through the years, so there is a tradition of participation and involvement. Many of our institutions have also been NEA grant recipients. Last year alone, 56 Minnesota organizations received $4,183,190 in funds administered by the NEA to support projects such as exhibitions, theater, dance and music productions, the creation of design arts curricula for youth, creative placemaking workshops for artists in rural Minnesota’s Lake Region communities, digitization of the American Craft Council’s library collections, and publication of the literary journal Rain Taxi Review of Books, as well as partnership agreements with the Minnesota State Arts Board and Arts Midwest.

The three recent appointments—Ranee, Rick, and myself—do underscore a priority in the Obama administration and at the NEA to bring increased racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity to the Council’s membership. The nomination of the new NEA Chairperson Jane Chu supports this new direction as well.

Smith: The work of your fellow appointee Rick Lowe is steeped in social practice. You have seen firsthand at the Walker with the experimental Open Field project how social practice can engage audiences in new ways. In your opinion, why is this a direction the NEA considered?

Viso: Given his long history of involvement with the NEA, Rick is a natural new addition. He brings not only the perspective of an artist and maker, but also that of the founder of a small, grassroots institution committed to creative placemaking and social activism in his community. He founded the organization Project Row Houses in Houston in the 1990s, inspiring many similar organizations and projects around the country. Social practice is a growing area of experimentation and activity in cultural organizations across the country, so it seems obvious to bring someone on board to the Council who can share this expertise and history in productive and critical ways.

Ragamala Dance Company. Photo by Bonnie Jean MacKay.

Ragamala Dance Company. Photo: Bonnie Jean MacKay

Smith: Along the same lines, what is important about having a major institution’s perspective included in the advisory board?

Viso: The composition of the Council is carefully considered to bring a variety of perspectives surrounding US culture together into one forum, including leaders of large and small institutions, visual and performing artists, authors, musicians, designers, arts administrators, grantmakers, and legislators. I bring the larger, multidisciplinary institutional perspective, while Ranee and Rick bring the perspectives of artists leading smaller organizations and from their respective disciplines of dance and visual arts. The Council is a fascinating and inspiring group of people, with singer Lee Greenwood from Nashville, former New Hampshire legislator Paul Hodes, and pioneering organic farmer and author David “Mas” Masumoto from California, among others.

Smith: In an interview with Rebecca Gross for the NEA’s Art Works blog, you mention that art is important because “it can provoke new thinking and perspective and can often invite us to experience the world with a new lens that taps into our own creative agency.” How do you see the NEA’s role in actualizing this idea? Do you see the recently announced grants aimed at researching “how art works and its impact on communities” supporting it by offering more concrete evidence in the face of increasing pressure to shut down the NEA?

Viso: One of the impactful legacies of former NEA chairperson Rocco Landesman was his ability to communicate to government the importance of the arts and the need for good public policy around the arts. It was Rocco who coined the term “art works.” Through his strong advocacy, he formed a number of lasting partnerships with other government agencies, including HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development], that continue to leverage millions of additional dollars towards culture each year in the addition to the NEA annual appropriation.

The new Art Place and “Our Town” grant initiatives that supported the Hennepin Avenue Cultural District project here in the Twin Cities several years ago were born out of Rocco’s active partnership with government. Rather than fight solely for increased funds to the NEA, Rocco formed partnerships that redirected new funds from other agencies toward culture. It is a great model and has, in my view, inspired a great deal of creative thinking about how to communicate the value of culture persuasively to government and to the American public.

Smith: This leads to a topic I’m sure is top-of-mind for many: the NEA has been a lightning rod for politicians for decades and has often been on the chopping block during budget-cut discussions. This remains an unfavorable sign, especially considering that the 2015 budget was already cut by $8 million from the previous fiscal year ($146 from $154 million). What are some of the difficulties in making the arts a credible, and tangible, part of an American’s life, not just to politicians, but to citizens as well?

Sam Durant’s installation We Are the People at Project Row Houses in 2003. Photo: Rick Lowe, courtesy Project Row Houses

Sam Durant’s installation We Are the People at Project Row Houses in 2003. Photo courtesy Project Row Houses

Viso: In times of financial need culture is always at risk. It is unfortunately seen as a luxury as opposed to a core value and necessity within a good and just society. This attitude is what needs to shift for the arts and artists to thrive in this country, and this is why Rocco’s mantra of “art works” is so compelling. He wasn’t afraid to make the case for art’s instrumental value in society, which is a case that can be made. It is art’s intrinsic value that is much, much harder to communicate and is difficult to do. Unlike many countries around the globe, the US does not have a formal Ministry of Culture. That work is dispersed between the NEA and the NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities]. There is no cabinet-level appointee responsibility for culture in this country.

Smith: On a personal level, would you like to see the NEA return to funding individual artists, or is that delivery method an anachronism today?

Viso: The NEA does continue to award grants annually to individual artists who work in the fields of jazz, literature, and folk and traditional arts. These grants were not eliminated, and last year alone 68 grants were awarded to 68 artists in 28 states. What was eliminated, unfortunately, back in the 1990s, during the time of the culture wars, were individual grants to artists within the category of visual arts. The NEA does, however, continue to fund artists indirectly through grants to institutions that commission and present the work of living contemporary artists.

Smith: I’m thinking of alternatives to federal government funding and trying to imagine where support might come from in the upcoming decades. Perhaps corporations will begin funding local arts education and programming, realizing a tangible benefit for the employees’ families’ quality of life in their respective cities. Or maybe it is not a federal issue, but a state one. Locally, the voter-approved Legacy Amendment will give $1.2 billion in funding to the arts over the amendment’s 25 years, which will almost certainly enhance Minnesota’s quality of life. Or, perhaps the NEA is just as much of a hot button for the public as it is for politicians, and artists and organizations should avoid public funding and operate in a more free-market business style rather than looking for grant support. Has your time at the NEA given you an idea of the future of arts funding or any new options for finding funding?

Viso: While I would certainly advocate for the return of individual artist grants someday, what I would like to see more of today is more institutions proactively applying for projects that support living artists and the commission of new work. What I am seeing among institutional awardees in the visual arts arena, in particular, are applications for projects deemed “safe” by applicants, such as collections-based research, publication of scholarship, conservation, and exhibitions of old masters and historic material. These are all certainly very worthy and important projects for institutions that require considerable resources and allocation of funds, but what troubles me is the possibility that there is probably quite a bit of self-censorship happening in the field as a result of the challenges the NEA and the country faced back in the ’90s. I worry that institutions are not applying for riskier projects that get important resources out to artists.

This is why organizations like the Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts, on whose board I also serve, are so important. The Foundation, which was established in the late 1980s following Warhol’s death and in the midst of the culture wars, stepped in to focus on funding adventurous contemporary art organizations and projects that became at risk following the elimination of individual artist grants. The Warhol Foundation has de facto become the go to place for the funding of riskier kinds of projects that the NEA is assumed to not be interested (correctly or not) in supporting.