A Review and Comparison of Policy: The National Endowment for the Arts 2014 Annual Report and the League of American Orchestras “Orchestra Facts: 2006-2014”

In early 2017, I took an Art and Education Policy seminar at the Sibelius Academy where I reviewed policy documents from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) and the League of American Orchestras (LOA) as the final project of the course. I have reviewed and slightly edited the paper in order to turn it into a post for this site.

I decided to look at the NEA and LOA policies because they serve as great indicators of American national policy, and opinion, when it comes to the arts. The NEA is the only organization that serves as a "cultural ministry" in the United States. It was founded in 1965 as an independent agency of the United States Federal Government serving at the will of the President and Congress. The self stated goals of the NEA are to provide all Americans with a wide range of opportunities for participation in the arts and to make the arts a “vital part of the the lifeblood” of the US ("NEA 2014 Annual Report", 2). While it was created as an apolitical agency, it remains vulnerable to political influence and political governmental change. On its Arts Council sits elected current US State Representatives and Senators, and the NEA is funded completely by the federal government using American tax-dollars. President Donald Trump threatened to cut funding to the NEA in the 2018 budget, just as Ronald Reagan did in 1981, and its existence remains under threat by the current administration. In the 1990s, led by Newt Gingrich, members of Congress began calling for the elimination of the NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities, accusing it of supporting of controversial artists (i.e., the 'NEA Four' from 1990 or Piss Christ in 1989), and with the belief that the NEA was financially wasteful and elitist. If one assumes that the political moods and reactions reflects national opinion, it can be said that much of the American population does not believe the arts should be funded by the government. The NEA offers grants for various types of art projects, for individual artist and writers, for national initiatives and for partnership agreements amongst arts organizations. Its budget is not large (in 2015, its $148 million budget in 2015 was 0.013% of federal discretionary spending and constituted 0.004% of the total national budget, according to  The LA Times, 16 March 2017), but it has a matching program with a network of investors that raised an additional $500 million in 2016. The NEA provides very important financial support, especially in non-urban centers, for community projects and arts education and plays a crucial role in providing funding to smaller arts foundations, which in turn support the arts at a regional level. The NEA also funds its own research, though it has been criticized by musicians, composers, and administrators (Sheldon Morgenstern and Joshua Fineberg, for example) of spending more money on grant panels and administrative costs than on direct funding of the arts.

The LOA, on the other hand, is well-known within American classical music culture, specially orchestral circles, and is a private organization that reports on and advocates for orchestras and orchestral music in the US (larger professional ensembles as well as smaller civic and community ensembles). Founded in 1942 as a communications network for civic orchestras, it developed into a national organization by 1954 that included most major American orchestras. In 1962, the LOA was chartered as an act of Congress (predating the NEA by 3 years). The group self proclaims to be a “catalyst, convener and source of information and knowledge” for orchestras of all sizes in the US and is the only group dedicated to strengthening and improving the orchestra industry nationwide ("LOA Strategic Plan", 4). As a private organization with a more specific focus than the NEA, it is a key force working towards legislation for orchestras and in support of orchestral music. Its studies, for instance the "Orchestra Facts 2006-2014", have been partially supported by a NEA Arts Works grant, and therefore can be viewed in part as an extension of the work of the NEA.

In an effort to 'introduce' myself to these important American organizations, I chose to analyze the “Orchestra Facts” study and the NEA 2014 Annual Report. Both these documents, particularly the “Orchestra Facts”, provided me with information on not only what projects are being focused on, but also the aims of each organization and how they differ, shedding light on American arts funding and general opinion on the arts and its value. To supplement my review of these documents, I also examined the most recent published 'Strategic Plans' for each organization. These Strategic Plans provided needed context and explanation for the reports, as well as indicated changes in mission, vision, and strategic goals post-2014 reporting. While there are great fundamental differences in the two organizations - public vs private, political vs apolitical, direct financial giving vs research/administrative support - both organizations consider it their mission to advocate, in some way, for the the arts they represent. The NEA does so by funding various projects and awarding grants, while the LOA studies and provides necessary information to orchestras to enable them to function in economically sustainable and viable ways. Examinations of both organizations’ documents reflected important examples of the way that the policy's audience (government vs working artists) affects policy language, the different tools available to public versus private organizations, how these organizations frame their data in order to suite their audience, the political language used to advocate for art at a government level, and the effectiveness of language within policy.

The NEA "Annual Report"

The "Annual Report" is addressed to the President of the United States, many opening with a cover letter that was virtually identical from the 2011 report to the most recent 2016 report. The report contains full- and half-page photographs, along with broad summaries on the activities of the organization: what the types of projects funded and what the aims of those projects are. While the report is informative, it is not an active advocacy document, in the sense that it presents only what the organization has tried to accomplish with the funds it has without implying ever that it could or should do more with more government support. The contents are very neutral, politically and ideologically, and I think the motivation for this is that the function of the document is primarily political. This report might be the only document that members of Congress ever read concerning the NEA, and it must simultaneously convince these people that the organization has been productive, its work is necessary and its funding should be continued. The organization, as said before, exists financially at the whim of the US government and therefore it does not have the power to speak and act like the LOA, which is private. The reporting and message, as you might say, must be more covert and much less outwardly controversial and can be interpreted by the types of projects and research that get funded.

In order to re-format my final course paper for this post, I revisited the Annual Reports from 2007-2016.  These 10 years included reports from 4 different chairpersons: Dana Gioia (2003-2009), Patrice Walker Powell (acting, 2009), Rocco Landesman (2009-2012), Joan Shikegawa (acting 2012-2014), and Jane Chu (2014-2018, she announced 2 May 2018 she would be stepping down in June).  Dana Gioia has a reputation of being the most politically able and managed to increase the budget of the NEA during his tenure more than $30 million, while appealing to both liberals and conservatives in Congress.  His reports are very long, and much more detailed than the reports of those who came after him.  Since his departure, the budget has mostly stayed the same, fluctuating slightly up or down, but the annual reports have gotten much shorter, more neutral in tone, and with a broader summary of the NEA's activities.  The budgets have remained constant, which is to say quite broad, simply showing the total budget for the year, and how much went into a number of key projects.  

In examining the NEA budget, around 40% goes to various state arts agencies and regional arts organizations to continue existing partnerships, and around 50% of awarded grants are intended for “underserved” populations, reflecting a common mission of both the NEA and LOA to reach out to populations that have less access to arts and culture. In effort to counter the sentiment amongst mainly conservative politicians and constituents that the arts are elitist, the NEA demonstrates throughout its report that its grants go to every congressional district in all parts of the country. For ideological and/or political reasons, this mission is probably the most important one for the NEA, and therefore one towards which the majority of grants and research funding goes. Other initiatives include “The Big Read”, which seeks to “broaden our understanding of the world” through reading and “Southern Exposure”, which hopes to “build greater appreciation and understanding of Latin America" ("2014 Annual Report", 8). Between 2012-2016 (the only reported figures available), the NEA Office of Research and Analysis (ORA) awarded, on average, $307,000 or 0.192% of the budget per year in grants towards research into the value and impact of arts in the US. I found this very surprising, considering both the self-described mission of the NEA (to make the arts a 'lifeblood' of American life, and considering the criticism that the NEA has had over the years of spending money outside direct arts creation projects. I think the lack of focus on research could reflect the burden that the NEA endures, of being the only government arts organization in the United States, and one that has to function as both an independent agency and a government funded one. While research would be important for yielding data that could result in fundamental change - institutionally, educationally, culturally, governmentally - the organization has to be able to have something very literal to show, yearly, to prove that its existence is necessary. It was curious to me, though, that there existed, in the 2014 report at least, some very important figures: arts and culture contributed more that $698 billion dollars to the US economy, 4.32% of the GDP (more than contraction, transportation, and warehousing) and 4.7 million people. But this fact, one that could be used to bolster for government support for the organization, and the arts in general, was buried in page 12 of the report. It seemed like a quite passive way of presenting some facts that show how art, and the function of the NEA, is lending itself to the economic well-being of the United States, something that I know politicians would latch on to. But as I noted, advocacy is not a goal of the document.

From the perspective of a musician and researcher in contemporary music, there were two other items in the 2014 Annual Report that were particularly notable. First, the summary of funds obligated for fiscal year (FY) 2014 (page 15 of the report) indicate the least amount of spending for the “creation of art” (8.7% of obligated funds) and “promoting knowledge” (3.8%). An estimated 31.6% of funds went towards existing partnerships, and it is possible that ‘art creation’ and ‘knowledge diffusion’ might be spent on at the state, regional or local level, but this is surprisingly low for an organization that proposes to strengthen the arts in the US. What I can conclude is that the organization is more concerned with art preservation and promoting existing art fields. In other words, the primary focus in on promoting comfortable art, to borrow from art sociologists, rather than challenging art forms. As a government organization, and one that has been under constant criticism for being elitist, I can understand the lack of focus on contemporary and new art promotion, new ways of creating art, and promotion of art related knowledge. Contemporary art is often aesthetically difficult, and perhaps promoting art education could be interpreted (right or wrong) as ideological overstepping. As a result, however, creation of art and arts education then falls into the hands, and on the wallets, of existing art organizations and/or schools. As the LOA reports, and as we can see from the US orchestra programming, American orchestras have made strong pushes in the last 3-5 years of increasing arts education and outreach, and of commissioning and performing new works. Public schools, however, are increasingly cutting their arts education programs due to lack of funding, nationally. 

Funding research and promoting new art are very important for arts advocacy, but only indirectly affect the general population, or let us say, affect the population much less directly than providing artistic performances, workshops, or exhibitions. As the most important government arts organization, and therefore as a political organization, it makes sense that the focus of the NEA must be on funding projects that the population can directly benefit from, immediately engage with, and whose effects can be reported on immediately. One final note regarding the National Arts Council, which is the body that advises the chairperson and makes recommendations on projects, spending, and budgets. The council consists of one classical musician, two artists (does not specify what kind), one jazz musician, one singer/ songwriter, and one dancer, along with two arts administrators, one researcher, and two philanthropy professionals. While it attempts to be comprehensive, there are no general managers, or representatives, from any orchestra, dance, theater, or opera company, nor any writers or arts educators. The Arts Council changes, as members are selected for terms, but I found that the breadth of experience narrow. However, I must remind myself that the NEA remains a political body, where politicians (who might have no artistic expertise) sit on the council alongside artists and arts administrators.

The NEA Strategic Plan 2014-2018

The NEA Strategic Plan 2014-2018 was a very different document than the 2014 Annual Report, both in its language and the specificity of its projects. Possible reasons for this include the fact that the Annual Report is addressed to the President/Congress, whereas the Strategic Plan is meant for the NEA organization itself, as well as other arts policy makers and grant applicants. In July 2014, Jane Chu, former President and CEO of the Kauffman Centre for the Performing Arts, was sworn in as the new Chairwoman for the NEA. The 2014 Annual Report was published approximately 10 months after she was sworn in and reported on spending and activities that took place before her time at the NEA. Seeking to learn more about Janet Chu, I found an article online by Duncan Webb entitled “What’s Jane Chu Doing at a Place like the NEA?”. The article refers to a visit that Ms. Chu made to a course the author was leading at NYC in spring 2016. In it, Webb states that students in the course asked Ms. Chu what goals she had set for herself, acknowledging the challenge in the question, since the NEA Chairwoman serves at the will of the President and Congress and could be replaced or removed at any time. However she responded that she "is focusing on improving the NEA’s effectiveness as an organization... determined to make the NEA better at what it does by improving communications, pushing up moral, and working with her staff to create a strong set of organizational values and thus a stronger institutional culture." This is quite clearly portrayed in the unified image she outlines for the organization in both the Strategic Plan and the NEA 2017 Guide, which explains all the partnerships and initiatives that the NEA has and that were referenced in the 2014 Annual Report. Webb’s article also mentioned that she is constantly tailoring her message to her audience, which one can clearly see in the two (three) documents I looked at.

The Strategic Plan 2014-2018 introduces the “Art Works for America” slogan that appears in all NEA documents. There are three aspects to the “Art Works” message: 1) referencing the works of art themselves, 2) that art works on communities to “change, confront, challenge and inspire”, and 3) that art jobs are real jobs that are part of the real economy. Both in presentation and explanation, this is a much stronger statement regarding the goals and opinions of the NEA than anything that appeared in the 2014 Annual Report. The strategic plan presents both the mission and vision of the NEA. The mission, “to strengthen the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation” is based on the NEA belief that art “plays an integral role in our national life and public discourse” (NEA Strategic Plan 2014-2018, 1-2). Together with the vision statement (“a nation in which every American benefits from arts engagement, and every community recognizes and celebrates its aspirations and achievements through the arts”), the NEA displays a clearer message of belief in and advocacy of arts with a very strong worded message that serves to unify the organization, and hopefully enable positive influence on policy. It also signaled, to me, a change in rhetoric, becoming more streamlined and concise. Despite this, the NEA continues to be challenged by a budget that does not really reflect the enormity of their responsibility as the only government arts agency in America.

The LOA "Orchestra Facts 2006-2014: A Study of Orchestra Finances and Operations"

The “Orchestra Facts 2006-2014: A Study of Orchestra Finances and Operations” was commissioned by the LOA and published in November 2016. The report reflects the financial and operational situation of orchestras in the US over a span of nine years and its goal was to “help shape public dialogue around the role of orchestras, as well as inform the work of orchestras themselves" (“Orchestra Facts”, 3). The study was supported in part by a NEA Art Works grant, and therefore can viewed partially as an extension of the work of the NEA. As an orchestral musician, the document is extremely relevant to my work, outlining not only statistics for orchestral activity and audience participation, but breaking down orchestra finances, showing key difference in the Finnish versus American models of orchestral music production (to be discussed in a later post). It is not a policy document in the same way as the NEA 2014 Annual Report, but its results will be used build LOA policy. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on the elements of the study that promote a discussion of policy and provide links to the NEA 2014 Annual Report. The most notable similarity was the highlighted effort of the LOA to report on the education and community engagement (EdCE) efforts made by orchestras, which paralleled the NEA mission and aim to promote art cultivation and production in “underserved” communities, and in general bring more art to more audiences.

The LOA reported that 2.1 million people participated in EdCE performances in 2014 and that, on average, 42% of all performances and other events were EdCE activities, paralleling 50% of NEA funds going to “underserved” communities (“Orchestra Facts”, 4). There is a concerted effort to emphasize the inclusiveness of orchestra music by focusing and reporting on this outreach element. The LOA, I'm sure, acknowledges the importance of these outreach figures when applying to foundation and endowments, like the NEA, for grant funding. In the LOA study, 98% of orchestras noted “their ambitions to create access for audiences not traditionally engaged by the orchestra, and to deepen the audience experience” (“Orchestra Facts”, 8). This again echoes the policy of the NEA, and reflects decisions made by the orchestral community to begin engaging with more patrons in the community. As orchestras rely increasingly on ticket sales and small donations, it is becoming increasingly important to "reach out" to audiences in order to secure financial support. The performing arts have widely reported that participation is dropping, and the "Orchestra Facts" reported that concert attendance declined on average around 10.5% between 2010-2014. Around 40% of orchestra income is earned, through ticket sales, subscriptions, additional performances, CD recordings, etc, while 43% of total income is contributed, of which 35% comes from individual donations (with only 7% from the government, and 13% from other foundations). Orchestras have seen a rise in individual ticket sales, although not making up for the gap in declining subscriptions (yet). Outreach, while not only societally beneficial, is also necessary for encouraging people to invest in the orchestra, either through ticket sales or by personal donation (or a donation from a foundation). Finally, like in the NEA report, the LOA study highlighted that orchestras contributed $1.8 billion dollars directly to the US economy in 2014 (“Orchestra Facts”, 4).

What surprised me in the study, like in the NEA report, was the small amount of focus (financially, and rhetorically) on developing new orchestral repertoire. The “Orchestra Facts” reported that “EdCE programs also supported the creation of new orchestral repertoire, embedded in the communities served by orchestras... 21% of EdCE survey respondents reported offering composition workshops, while 14% ran a composer-in-residence program of one week or longer” (“Orchestra Facts”, 9). Only 14%! This resembled the 8.7% of obligated FY14 NEA funds that went towards the creation of art. There is a common ideology between the two organizations: both the NEA and LOA acknowledge explicitly that the creation of new, excellent American art is a goal, and both organizations have clearly stated that making new art that is more relevant to populations and communities today is a priority. However, in practice, funds must be redirected elsewhere. Like with the NEA, many American orchestras have chosen to focus on maintaining and preserving orchestral tradition, rather than reinventing. This echoes the belief that still exists across America that contemporary music cannot be accepted by audiences, and that challenging music is financially too risky. While these figures do not take into account the individual efforts by state and regionally funded arts organizations (through NEA support), or various orchestras (through private contributions), to promote the creation of new art on a case-by-case basis, it seems to me that the fiscal situation prohibits a significant effort into commissioning new art. The majority (two thirds) of American orchestras have operating budgets under $300,000. Orchestras have to take it amongst themselves to commission and program new art, and most are not ready, or able, to take that “risk”.

The focus of the report, like the NEA Annual Report, reflected the nature of cultural situation of art in the United States - not to be taken for granted. The LOA Facts predominately discuss the financial situation (including concert attendance) and outreach efforts because those are the things that orchestras are most concerned with, and the items that will ensure survival for America's orchestras.  Artistic and aesthetic decisions and philosophies, it seems, are deemed separate and inferior issues when it comes to ensuring the survival of orchestral arts in America.  It would be interesting to see what kind of report might be generated if one takes the financial facts and figures in conjunction with the artistic philosophies and trends (programming, chamber music series, new music series, etc) at hand.  Or, for sake of comparison, included contemporary ensembles like the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the American Composers Orchestra in its study. This is not meant as a criticism, the "Orchestra Facts" is the first comprehensive report of its kind and will be hugely beneficial to many orchestras in the United States. I just wonder if reports such as these, and art policy in general, could consider the artistic and aesthetic goals and values, not only the distributive ones.

The LOA “Strategic Plan 2015”

The LOA “Strategic Plan 2015” provides the policy framework for the “Orchestra Facts” study. It should be said that the LOA does not directly fund any ensembles, but they do speak on behalf of the large majority of American orchestras. Most of the LOA is made up of members (players and management) from a wide range of orchestras in the US, so while they do not directly fund art production like the NEA, their policy documents reflect, generally, the policy of American orchestras. The LOA Strategic Plan includes both policy statements speaking on behalf of American orchestras, but also internal goals for the LOA organization. In his introduction, LOA president Jesse Rosen notes “the rate of experimentation [in the orchestra environment] is at an all-time high” (which I presume must reference things outside the realm of programming) and that “orchestra missions are...shifting from an inward focus, on their own attributes, to an outward one: the public impact they make” (LOA Strategic Plan, 5). This “outward” focus is also mentioned in the NEA Strategic Plan. Mr. Rosen highlights three main challenges facing American orchestras: 1) the possible fiscal consequences if state or federal governments begin taxing ticket sales and removing tax incentives for charitable giving, 2) current changes in philanthropic priorities as wealth is being transferred to the next generation, for whom there might be less interest in classical music, and 3) racial diversity within orchestras (LOA Strategic Plan, 6). These are challenges that the LOA, as a private non-government organization, can state openly, which the NEA cannot. Similar to the NEA plan, which makes special note of continued use of social media, the president’s letter emphasizes that the LOA must invest in technology that makes information and knowledge more accessible, faster. However, the NEA mentions using social media to reach the greater public, whereas President Rosen’s comment implies an internal investment within LOA, not one that should or could be made by all orchestras. It perhaps alludes to the LOA’s place as an helpful resource of information, but not one that has any advisory power or influence on the ensembles it seeks to advocate for.

Both the NEA and LOA strategic plans draft mission/vision statements and specific goals, or priorities, but it was here that I saw the most amount of divergence in policy language and strategy. The NEA mission and vision were concisely worded, whereas the LOA mission and vision have much less refined rhetoric:

"Mission: To advance the experience of orchestral music, support the people and organizations that create it, and champion the contributions they make to the health and vibrancy of communities. 

Vision: The orchestra experience is shared by all and supported by artistically vibrant, robust and critically engaged organizations; and the league is an indispensable leader, resource and voice for the orchestra community and its value to the public." (LOA Strategic Plan, 11)

The LOA’s mission and vision differed in part from issues presented by President Rosen in his opening letter. I wonder when the mission and vision were drafted, and if their language will change in the aftermath of the "Orchestra Facts" report, and future reporting. Both the NEA and LOA make reference to community involvement, the importance of their organization, and the value of the art they support, but the NEA mission and vision are somehow drafted in a way that they appear current and effectively formatted.

I had a similar reaction comparing the goals and priorities of the two organizations. The three strategic goals of the NEA are: 1. to support the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence [including the expansion of the American art portfolio], 2. to foster public engagement with diverse and excellent art and 3. [to] promote public knowledge and understanding about the contributions of the arts (NEA Strategic Plan, 4-5). The goals are self contained, clear statements, each containing cause, reasoning, and “how.” The NEA plan goes further to sub-outline each goal, expounding upon each of these three points, but consistent throughout is very direct and unified objectives that are simple enough in language to encompass the vast majority of the NEA’s existing projects but not too general that they would become ambiguous. The LOA, on the other hand, drafts five priorities, all of which were short but much more vague and required immediate further explanation using a list of proposed methods of execution: “advance the orchestra experience”, “develop the field”, “better serve members”, “strengthen the league’s business model”, and “grow the league’s capacity” (LOA Strategic Plan, 11-13). In assessing the effectiveness of the two plans, I found the language of the NEA strategy to be a more successful model due to its clear, focused rhetoric and exact language. This contrasted greatly with the NEA 2014 Annual Report, and also surprised me because I would have thought the LOA plan, having a more specific responsibility and target audience, would have had much more specific goals based on the findings of the “Orchestra Facts.”

Concluding Remarks

Review of these four documents have provided me with not only a better understanding of the purpose and functioning of the National Endowment for the Arts and the League of American Orchestras, but also an understanding about what shapes and influences their policy. While the overall aims of advocacy and spreading art to more people are goals which are the same between both organizations, the breadth, focus and ability of each organization to do so, and the way their policy is written, is different. The NEA has the power, through the projects they fund, to directly shape art distribution in the United States and as the most important American art and culture organization, they have tremendous influence. However, because they are a government organization, they cannot be as bold, or outspoken as the LOA and their budget and policy is shaped by the government under which they serve. The LOA has a much more specific aim, and as a private organization, can be as outspoken as necessary to advocate for the orchestras they represent. However, the LOA does not directly fund the creation or proliferation of art, though their work supports the orchestras. Under Chairwoman Jane Chu, the message of the NEA has become much more exact and focused, in my opinion, compared to the LOA. Neither organization, however, has a policy regarding aesthetic purposes and value in art, or specifically, what aesthetic goals it wishes to accomplish, preferring to focus instead on maintaining and preserving the artistic institutions that exist rather than to create new institutions, art knowledge, or art in general.

Sources Cited:

“2014 Annual Report” by the National Endowment for the Arts. Available online <https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/2014%20Annual%20Report.pdf>. Accessed 26 April 2017.

“Orchestra Facts: 2006-2014” commissioned by the League of American Orchestras, November 2016. Available online <http://americanorchestras.org/images/ stories/of/Orchestra_Facts_2006_to_2014_LeagueFinal.pdf>. Accessed 25 April 2017.

“Strategic Plan 2014-2018” by the National Endowment for the Arts. Available online <https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/NEAStrategicPlan2014-2018.pdf>. Accessed 2 May 2017.

“Strategic Plan 2016-2020” by the League of American Orchestras, December 2015. Available online <https://americanorchestras.org/images/stories/ FullStrategicPlanOrchLeague2016.pdf>. Accessed 25 April 2017.

Webb, Duncan. “What’s Jane Chu Doing at a Place Like the NEA?” Available online: <http://www.clydefitchreport.com/2016/04/jane-chu-nea/>. Accessed 1 May 2017.


Lucy Abrams