Wednesday, January 26, 2011

NEA Talk

Charles Jensen's posted a list of some literary organizations who took NEA money in 2010 over at his blog. We have a difference of opinion, and that's okay. It's worth checking out.

The list was kind of eye opening. To learn that Small Press Distribution, Inc took in $60,000 was impressive. I was under the impression they made their money from taking a large chunk (35% - 50%) of the money from the sale, and giving whatever's left back to the press, but only after over 6 months. In most cases, SPD is getting more money from the book than the press who discovered and produced the book. I've heard of numerous presses who were forced to fold or go on "hiatus" because, though sales were good, they didn't get paid in time to do another press run, and lost all the steam from their initial push of announcements, reviews, and advertising.

He also posted an open letter to the arts community, and C. Dale Young over at his blog posted a bit of it. It's a good letter. In it, he asks "Why aren't you more actively engaged in supporting federal, state, and local funding for the arts?" My answer is that I do. Most of us in the community do--we buy the books these presses publish. Some who are lucky enough to teach poetry assign books from these presses, and the press sells an additional 20 books in one shot. Maybe the schools where they teach bring in that writer, and the book store orders a few more copies. It's a great way to spread the word about a book.

Jenson writes in the open letter that "While federal or state funding should never be considered a crutch or an essential income stream, it is important." But I can't help but think that these grants and these funds, and the donations that are given above and beyond what they've charged for the books they publish, are being used as crutches, and they have become essential to the presses and journals. It just doesn't seem like they're making money from selling what they're making, and, like I've said, that's a flaw in operations.

Some of these presses are fantastic--like Ugly Duckling & BOA & Rose Metal (who published The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, edited by Cooper Dillon's own Gary McDowell). They're putting out great work, and I encourage you to buy books from them!

I don't know a single writer or artist who will only make art if they're going to get a grant for it, or win an award from an organization funded by a grant. If the intention is to make art to cater to these organizations, that's not a healthy way to go about it. I like to think that art comes from a stronger necessity on the part of the individual to create something from themselves, and put some sort of beauty into the world.

There are far more artists who create without the help of anyone. They buy their own paint and canvas, and they lick their own stamps to send out work, and they travel long distances to do readings in bookstores in hopes of selling a few copies of their books, and hoping someone will have a couch and a beer for them when they show up.

I don't know the answer, so I'll ask: is the real innovative work--whether it be visual or literary--really coming from the recipients of these funds, or is it coming from the people making the art simply because it comes out of them?


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