Mr. Gioia's NEA

I've often argued that public funding of the arts is less desirable than the private model. As with most government subsidies, it interjects politics into decision making and results in poor allocation of resources and lower standards. Examples are too numerous to discuss here.

That said, if the electorate forces arts funding on us, it is helpful to have a thoughtful person leading the effort. During the Bush years, we have been fortunate to have such a person in Dan Gioia.

Running the National Endowment for the Arts under a Republican Administration brings all the notoriety that heading the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms does under the Democrats. Like the accomplishments of Bush's "Homeless Czar", or the Africa Initiative, the press has studiously ignored Mr. Gioia. Yet many have felt the positive effects of his efforts, most notably those serving in the military. Mr. Gioia:

"...secured Boeing funding for a tour of opera companies to 41 military bases — a project that met with surprising success. He also initiated “Operation Homecoming,” which recruited some three dozen writers to lead workshops with soldiers rotating out of Afghanistan and Iraq in order to help them articulate their experiences."

To those who have not done a stint in the military, it might well seem "surprising" that young soldiers, sailors and Marines would enjoy Shakespeare. After all, public perceptions of who actually serves in the military are strangely distorted.

In fact, military folks (including doctors, lawyers, nurses, pilots, mechanics, cooks, ship captains, computer experts, etc.) have above average levels of education and are often intellectually curious and naturally adventurous. Sounds like a natural theater going audience to me. In fact, when I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, I was a regular at the Shakespeare in the Park summer stock theater in San Diego (great place to meet women, BTW).

And of course military people love to write. Letter writing starts in Boot Camp where the DIs force recruits to write their "fricken mothers!" It continues with the inevitable letters of longing to girlfriends. And it sometimes ends with expunging the mental anguish of combat in personal and very private journals.

That Mr. Gioia understood these things and strove to use the NEA help young people serving their country says a great deal about the man. He could have used the position as his predecessors had. He could have used the NEA as a tool to reward political allies, which often resulted in the inevitable silliness at the SF or NY MOMA. But rather, he chose to use public funds to bring the classics to the young, and to teach practical skills in writing.

So, thank you Mr. Gioia. And thank you President and Mrs. Bush. It was your idea to take the NEA in a new, different, and better direction. None of you will get any credit from the powers that be in the "arts community". But you will get it here, and from the thousands of young people who benefited from your insights and thoughtfulness.