'Nice/safe art' would supplant peer panels' work

September 16, 1990|By Philip Arnoult

The recommendations of the presidentially appointed Independent Commission on the National Endowment for the Arts, made public last week, call for a restructuring of the grant-making process, giving the chairman of the NEA and the National Council -- rather than "peer panels" -- the central role in deciding on grants.

If these recommendations are adopted, I believe the NEA will lose the participation of a large segment of professionals and will be on the road to a less adventuresome "National Endowment for the Nice/Safe Arts." For the artists of the country, the NEA would lose its moral center.

The peer panel is a group of professionals in the field who have a broad knowledge of particular disciplines, and indeed, subdisciplines, who meet to study and discuss applications and to make grant recommendations to the chairman and the National Council. The recommendations have usually had dollar figures attached to them. The grant awards have almost always followed the recommendations.

(When the chairman rejected four Solo Fellowships -- for Karen Finley, John Fleck, Tim Miller and Holly Hughes -- out of 18 recommendations made by a panel that I chaired, the endowment announced that approximately 37 grants had been rejected out of 35,000 approved in the last seven years.)

The panels are broad groups of professionals. Peter Culman and Stan Wojewodski of Centre Stage have both served the theater program panels long and well. I have sat on panels with Colleen Dewhurst, president of Actors' Equity; George White, founder and president of the O'Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut; Zelda Fichandler, founder and director of Arena Stage in Washington; and Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

It's safe to say that most of the directors, designers, producers and playwrights who have forged the non-profit theater in this country during the last 25 years have offered a major public service to the arts, to the agency and to the country by serving on innumerable "peer panels."

Let me put the process in microcosm. From 1985 through 1988, I served on the Theater Companies Panel along with more than a dozen of my colleagues. We dealt with more than 350 grant applications each year. In the weeks prior to our meeting, we were sent the infamous "panel books" -- probably the largest three-ring binders on the market. We got six of them. They contained -- for each company seeking a grant -- a four-page application form, two pages of supplementary material (three-year comparisons on artists' salaries, rehearsal weeks, budgets), an artistic director's statement and two "site reports" of two pages each. These are written evaluations of a theater, as well as other matters of either institutional or artistic/professional concern.

All in all, we had nearly 4,000 pages to read before we went to the table in Washington to begin our discussions and make our recommendations. As we sat down, and the books were opened, one could see at a quick glance page after page highlighted, underlined, with notes in the margin -- we did our homework. I spent a winter week at Fenwick Island with my wife and six panel books one year. It is a minimum of 40 hours of preparation.

The panel itself ran a full five days, and on most of these days we were working by 9 a.m., and were rarely out before 9 p.m. Often, we went on until well after 11 p.m.

A few more words about the "site visits." Nearly all of the panelists also assisted the endowment with at least two or three site visits each year -- some many more -- traveling to theaters across the country, meeting with staff, managers, directors, board members, seeing the artistic work and writing that two-page report on each theater, composed of a straightforward description of the theater and a more subjective professional review of its artistic quality.

Remember that these are all people who are in the top levels of their profession. Their work, in and for their theaters and companies, is consuming. I am constantly in awe of the level of attention, energy and seriousness each of my colleagues brings to that table in Washington.

A word about the panel dynamic itself, which is another phenomenon about this process that commands my respect. The diversity on each of these panels is necessarily quite broad. This means that 12 or 14 people may well come to the table with 12 or 14 clear and well-developed aesthetic views.

I have also observed, on occasion, people coming in with quite specific agendas for the panel. But something happens in the process of discussion and debate that for me is a source of pride in these colleagues of mine, and a feeling of personal satisfaction in being part of this process. What happens is that even as the discussion evolves and the debate heats up, the level of statesmanship rises.

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