An Open Letter to the Obama Administration:
The National Endowment for the Arts should embrace design and innovation as a means to fulfill the larger agendas and programs of the Obama Administration. The choice of the NEA Chairman is an important opportunity to shape the contribution of the NEA in coming years.
Impactful NEA initiatives already exist to support the literary and performing arts: what’s missing are solutions and innovations that could come from additional emphasis on the arts in a troubled economy, a nation struggling with environmental crisis, a country that needs its entire infrastructure rebuilt (and the resultant jobs that would come with the challenge).
These are precisely the times when a design-oriented NEA could most effectively benefit the nation with practical solutions, progressive thinking and citizen-oriented improvements affecting all aspects of civic, cultural and artistic life.
After fifteen years of polemical culture wars, the future of the National Endowment of the Arts was very much in question at the beginning of President Bush’s first term in 2002. When Bush’s first choice died only a week into his NEA term, the new President chose the poet Dana Gioia to lead the agency.
Gioia was a brilliant choice. He was a respected poet and essayist, as well as a former music critic and the author of opera librettros; in other words, he was comfortable across multiple artistic disciplines. A former executive with General Foods, he brought unusual strategic, budgetary and political skills to the job. His programmatic initiatives built support on the ground in Congressional districts, with many community-based literary programs: Shakespeare in American Communities, the Poetry Out Loud Recitation Project and The Big Read. Gioia took the arts he understood and successfully translated them into branded public programs at once national in scope and local in execution, garnishing across-the-aisle support in Congress for the agency. Budgets increased. Gioia then began to articulate a new vision for the arts (defined primarily around reading and literary culture) as a part of civic participation, backing up his argument with solid research and effective programs.
However, one discipline under the auspice of the NEA portfolio made little progress during these years: design (or, in the vocabulary of the NEA, the “design arts”). Design was not prioritized with major national initiatives; no designers serve on the NEA’s advisory board, the National Council on the Arts; and only three designers (Viktor Schreckengost, Florence Knoll Bassett and Lawrence Halprin) out of 80 named for the National Medal of Arts during the Bush years. In fact, there were virtually no important design policy contributions enacted during the Bush Administration with the exception of Laura Bush’s endorsement of the National Design Awards for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
(This is the only known instance of President Bush speaking about design during his administration. Compare this to the strongly-worded design policies of the early Richard Nixon presidency.)
So, what’s next?
It is easy to think of the NEA as only supporting poetry recitals or museums and theatre companies. In 1996, I gave a lecture on effective communication models for federal agencies sponsored by the NEA. Thirty leaders from different federal agencies attended the event to hear ten designers on different aspects of federal policy: communications strategies for the Government Printing Office to architectural models for changing the process by which Federal Courthouses are designed. Why isn’t such a practical NEA also the NEA of our times? Why isn’t the creativity the NEA wants to support in American culture allowed to address — for a time, in serious times — practical solutions? (Or in the words of Dana Gioia, "essential catalytic support.")
Gioia has spoken of "those public spaces we have in common. It can be as simple as a small town band shell, a civic auditorium, having a space where we come together to celebrate, commemorate, perform or meditate. And we do these through the arts..." Gioia championed the content to perform in those band shells — poetry, jazz, performance. But there was little emphasis on the band shell itself, as an architectural form, as a designed way of bringing people together in the public sphere. And the entire metaphor is rather Music Man-like, almost trapped in another age.
Operating now from a point of strength, the NEA should be asking what are the "band shells" of the future — those spaces that engage citizens in the arts and civic participation. As the Obama campaign discovered, online communities are as viable and engaged and powerful as crowds in a small-town park...and then that same community can be turned into thousands filling a stadium.
The NEA already has important design programs: Governors’ Institute on Community Design, Mayors’ Institute on City Design and Your Town: The Citizen’s Institute on Rural Design. Neatly packaged for Congress into state, city and rural initiatives, the true impact of these programs is currently lost. Within the context of all the disciplines represented by the NEA, design is uniquely situated to evaluate problems; look at citizen needs; place the problem within an experience base of other categories and industries; rapidly prototype potential solutions; add research modules for evaluation and feedback; introduce metrics to evaluate success or failure; and quickly move toward solutions.
At present, our nation is likely to support huge spending increases in infrastructure that scream for NEA involvement. There are concrete next steps for a design-oriented NEA. So, how about something like this, a few ideas for a re-envisioned NEA:
• What if every infrastructure project mandated by the Federal economic stimulus package required that 1% be spent on better architecture and design?
• What if every new post office had an artist’s mural like that created under the Works Progress Administration (WPA)? Job creation is the same, dollar-to-dollar, but the impact on quality of life for all citizens is dramatically improved. During the last great depression, it was the WPA's Federal Artists Program that shaped our historical memory with over 200,000 works being created. Imagine a new Federal Artists Program under the NEA that supported collaboration between designers, artists and architects, just as happens so often today in private sector projects. The goal should simply be better federally-supported projects: not only spaces, buildings, bridges, murals, sculptures and monuments. But also tax forms, postage stamps, ballots, voting machines, government websites — and wind mill farms, car designs and highway signage systems.
• What if the NEA took a leadership role in these initiatives? What if the NEA marshalled the creative talent in America to solve problems and to innovate change more quickly?
• What if the Governors’ and Mayors’ Institutes were restructured as a way to define design innovation across the country — just as Dana Gioia built support by having literary programs happen in every Congressional district?
• What if, under the aegis of the NEA and the State Department, a U.S. National Design Assembly in 2010 addressed the need for a consistent and effective branding of America overseas? (In 2003, we designed this Congressional report on U.S. public diplomacy: the rationale for better communications and branding, consistent with new policies, cannot be underestimated.)
• What if a Federal Design Improvement Program launched in 2011 to revitalize federal design standards and implementation across all major agencies, with the NEA providing leadership and design expertise?
• What if the Obama Administration sponsored a White House Conference on Citizen Experience, dealing with everything from paying taxes to health care to the voting experience? Again, the NEA could provide leadership and design expertise.
• Finally, what if the NEA took a leadership role in supporting a U.S. National Design Strategy, just as the country has other defining strategies that define the core values of government activities?
In all of these instances, the NEA could play a significant role if it defined design as a critical discipline, and if it asked how the arts and creativity can support innovation during the next Administration. Innovation, though, is not just a word, a turn of phrase. It requires a mindset, a way of thinking, a process towards specific goals. It also requires ambition, a willingness to move into the future in a new way.
Designers are deeply associated with the current generation of thinking around innovation and their services and expertise should be brought to the table at the NEA. Every study in recent memory has shown that the arts lie at the core of urban renewal and the economic well-being of our cities. And, as the research mounted by Dana Gioia had demonstrated, we are better citizens when the arts help us participate fully in our culture and democracy. But today there is a particular urgency — given the dramatic economic and political issues before us — in stepping forward to make significant and lasting change.
Designers have the capability to demonstrate how creativity can create value, not only in arts and culture, but also in business, society and everyday life. The NEA is the ideal Federal agency to serve as a catalyst for — and participate in — precisely such innovation.
Note: The author wishes to thank Richard Grefé, executive director of AIGA, for his help as a critic of this essay. AIGA is involved in many of the design initiatives mentioned in this essay.