Bless the National Endowment for the Arts

We are alone among the industrialized powers in our appalling disregard for the arts. "Without a vision, the people perish"--the life of the soul is not addressed only by politics, pop psychology, and crypto-Puritans.

Hundreds of creative and performing artists receive NEA grants, but precisely because they avoid the cocktail-party circuit, no one hears about them. Their works are played/exhibited/sold, but not to a great deal of fanfare.

Having grown up and spent most of my life around musicians, I can testify that subsidies serve to keep artists eating while they work. All of the artists of my acquaintance work at "day" jobs as well as their art, but it's seldom enough to cover food and rent, much less materials, which can be prohibitively expensive.

Not only are paints and canvas costly, but a composer has to pay all the costs of having parts separated and copied; this can run into thousands of dollars for a full orchestra work. If not for subsidies, ticket prices would be even higher, and there would be no special discounts for the elderly, the incapacitated, and students of any age.

Looking at arts funding in historical perspective, every single piece Mozart wrote as an adult was written for the Archbishop of Salzburg or the Emperor of Austria, with the exception of a few commissions for cities such as Prague. If not for kings and their ilk, there would have been no one to support him at all.

Musicians couldn't simply sell their compositions on the open market, because there wasn't one. Haydn spent virtually his entire life as the house music director for Count Esterhazy; he was famous, all right, but that didn't translate into money.

It is a commonplace of musicology that Beethoven was the first composer ever to have been subsidized to compose at his own pace, work on compositions he chose rather than commissions, and conduct them when and where he liked, and he achieved that only in late middle age.

Theatre companies existed as house companies for noblemen, with the exception of troupes like Schikaneder's, known principally for their vulgarity and operating always on the edge of bankruptcy. I am not saying that this was desirable, only that if not for such patronage we would not have these works of art at all.

A recent example of an artist who received NEA subsidies was John Corigliano, who used them to write both the Aids Symphony and Ghosts of Versailles, both great works in my opinion. I recently saw a wonderful evening of storytelling, which is organized for free by a friend of mine; subsidies pay minimal fees to the performers and rental of the space. If ticket prices had to cover all of this, they'd be prohibitive.

Short story time: My father was a professional opera singer, now semi-retired. He sang chorus and small parts at the Metropolitan Opera for 31 years, and at the NYC Opera before that. Contrary to popular opinion, this was a full-time career; rehearsals five days a week, usually 9-3 or 10-5, and performances six or seven times a week (two on Saturdays).

To make a little extra money, he sang in a professional church choir on Sundays. He was home so seldom that I didn't recognize him when I was little.

The Met chorus was unionized right about the time he joined, because Rudolf Bing, the general manager (rest in peace, Mr. B.) actually brought the union in. Even so, in the summertimes before the 80's, there was no summer season, so he was a restaurant steward at Jones Beach. We were pretty poor. There was always food on the table, but our cars were beaters with holes rusted through the floor, and there was never any money for things like fancy summer camps or more than one pair of school shoes. Thank God my mother could sew.

Now here comes the important part: the Metropolitan Opera Company is actually run by its Board of Directors, who are super-wealthy socialites. For them, directorships are marks of social achievement and indications of having "arrived."

The work is done by the General Manager and his staff, but the Board makes all company-wide decisions. No, they do not necessarily have any qualifications because they are not appointed for business reasons, and the MOC is not a publicly held company, so they are answerable to no one.

In 1969, there was a contract dispute between the house unions and the board, and the directors responded with a lockout. Since they were not financially dependent on the company's operation, they were perfectly willing to keep the house shut indefinitely.

I had never seen my mother cry before, but I did on the day that she got to the back of the pantry and we were on the last can, and there was no more food and no more money. My father was working any job he could find, mostly manual labor, and my mother got a part-time job typing, but they had to write to the bank holding our mortgage and beg them not to foreclose.

The Met was closed for an entire season. It opened again only because the President of the United States personally intervened and shamed the board into resuming operation.

Still think we can depend on the goodwill of the private sector to keep art and artists alive?

© copyright, 1997, Melissa Miles
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