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Cooperate -- or Die?

Houston's major art museums map a road to partnership, and worry about survival

All of this, of course, is being played out at a time when many people don't want a single penny given to the arts, the most obvious example being the recent call to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, which for some 30 years has been a brilliant and often controversial success. Locally, the abolishment or a severe reduction of the NEA could greatly impact our institutions. CAM received important NEA support for its Dennis Adams exhibit last fall as well as it's upcoming Art Guys: Think Twice. And the MFA's Marzio said recently that in addition to a $200,500 grant that's included in his museum's $18 million budget, the NEA supplied two grants that saved the MFA hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance costs.

Still, would abolishing the NEA inevitably add momentum to a downward spiral in art support? The three directors have somewhat different views on this issue. "I think the NEA issue is important short term, but I don't think it's significant long term," says Marzio. Instead, he insists, the real issue is what happens to the tax code, because "that's where the significant money is located. And people aren't talking about that yet. If there's a failure in the dialectic that's going on, it's in looking hard at the tax code and its ability or inability to encourage philanthropy." During the Reagan administration, Marzio says, philanthropy was actively discouraged; the trick now is to redesign the tax code to encourage philanthropy. But as for the NEA, he's sanguine. "Sure, there might be a little hiccup in the system anytime there's a change," he says, "but I'm just not that discouraged."

Marzio may have a point. But perhaps what he's really asking is, if the NEA is a lost cause, then why are arts advocates all barking up the wrong tree? At the Menil -- which the NEA hasn't played a large part in funding, though it has helped make sure that certain exhibitions were realized and catalogs published -- director Winkler also wonders if the focus on the NEA is advisable. "It's such a minimal amount of funding -- not like France or England, where an extraordinary half-billion is given to the arts and the cultural life of a country," he says. "Maybe if it always has to come up against these ridiculous fights, then there has to be some more creative thinking of how to get even better funding in a sense. Are we shooting ourselves in the foot by always having to come up against these same stupid arguments?"

CAM's Mayo, however, feels that the idea that the private sector will take up the slack is erroneous. "The private foundations and dedicated supporters are stretched to the limit," she says. "It will be harder. It won't be good for anybody, but it's not the end. We've made a huge mistake in emphasizing what the NEA means to us. What we really need to be thinking about is what the NEA means to the people. And, in fact, I think there is a political pall over adventure of any kind -- whether in the literary arts or the visual arts. People are unsure, in general, what's next in life and it's more difficult for them to buy into a future which seems so uncertain. But I've never known a real artist who stopped making art because there wasn't an audience in sympathy with it that minute or because there was not financial support for that work. I'm not expecting bleak times ahead. I'm a big proponent of the idea that a rising tide takes all ships. If we all do great work, we'll all get better support."

Perhaps partnerships, then, are the only way to survive in the next century. The overriding theme among the three directors seems to be, "We're all in this together, so let's make the best of it among ourselves." But missing in the NEA debate is the higher value issue. If we lose the NEA, we also lose the symbolism of the federal government buying into the cultural life of its people. Sure, art will survive. But what will this country have to offer the world -- Pop culture? Talk show TV? Baywatch? Museums aren't always tasteful affairs, but it seems to me that the most vital ones present tastes you can argue with while aspiring to do something besides affirm the fashions of the art majority.

Do we expect too much from these art institutions? Far from the wildcat organizations we once knew, our museums often function like echo chambers rather than laboratories that give rise to distinct voices. Institutions frequently slip into thinking of themselves as the principal providers of culture, but they're not; individual artists are. And a truly meaningful engagement, one that merits being described as an authentically lively cultural life, can only occur from the bottom up. From the artists, not the institutions.

Still, for some reason we expect our museums to be leaders of the vanguard. And there's really nothing wrong with the spirit of cooperation, inasmuch as our museums are doing what they're supposed to be doing -- keeping their institutions afloat. But in the end, will Houston become a city of originators or receivers? So far, the upcoming John Biggers exhibition is one of the few MFA organized shows slated to travel. And while it'll play big -- vital and exciting, with distinct connections to our community -- it's a show that should have been done years ago.

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