Senate testimony (1978)
Witness on behalf of S.2645, "The National Art Bank of 1978," Transcript of testimony before the Senate Committee of Human Resources, Harrison A. Williams Jr., Chairman, August 22, 1978.
I have made myself familiar with the concept of the Art Bank and how it has worked in Canada, and I have read the bill before us. In my opinion it is a very good idea. I have some suggestions and a few reservations.
Most of the best art today is being made in and around New York City. This is no accident. New York does not breed artists, it attracts them. Many of the best artists in New York were born elsewhere. They come to the city because that is where competition is strong and reputations are made. There is never very much of the very best art, and it tends to get noticed, and it tends to get expensive.
In recent years I have juried art shows in Michigan, New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, Texas, Idaho and North Carolina, and I have lectured and acted as Visiting Artist in as many more states. One show I juried had 3,709 entries. They came from almost every state in the union. I saw excellent work coming out of places I did not know were inhabited. There are no Picassos hiding out in North Dakota, but there was a man in a North Dakota town who was good enough to take third prize in that competition. I can assure you that there is good art being made in North Dakota which is not being seen, and I can assure you that there is good art being made in New York City which is seen but not sufficiently appreciated.
I would like to put special stress on the word "good", and, by doing so, elaborate a conflict implicit in the bill. Though the bill states that the Director's first duty will be to consider the quality of the work, it goes on to say that he must give equal weight to the encouragement of artists and to their geography. I do not think we need to encourage artists. There are too many artists who should be encouraged to do something else. We need to encourage achievement, first and foremost. That will benefit everyone. As for geography, all areas deserve equal investigation. As much as possible should be seen. But, any purchasing policy which includes a geographical quota system will corrode excellence. It may be good politics, but it is bad aesthetics. The second word I would like to stress is dissemination. Art is not art if it is not seen. While it is praiseworthy to recognize the achievement of our artists by establishing an Art Bank, its primary service, like that of any bank, is its loans. It must not be a charity, nor a storehouse, but an intermediary, an agency to select good art and put it into our daily use. I realize that this is part of the stated purpose of the Bank, and I am pleased to see that there are few restrictions on loans. But, one of the Director's first responsibilities will be to develop a highly efficient system for getting the art out before the public. This should be emphasized more strongly.
This brings me to the third point of stress, strength so much depends on a strong arm at the helm, an art professional who is a good executive, with no axe to grind, and the willingness to say, as Mrs. Mondale said recently to certain foolish criticisms, "Baloney!" Any museum trustee will tell you a good director is absolutely essential, if hard to come by. Furthermore, the Director should work unhindered by bureaucratic baggage. I am sure there are good reasons for putting the Art Bank under the wing of the Endowment, but I have had enough experience with bureaucracy to know that best results are gained by giving an able person full responsibility. Let us not underestimate the tremendous prestige and power the Art Bank will have! It can succeed on its own. It could actually buy art with its profits. The taxpayer could get a return on his money. This would be a singular achievement in itself.
There are five more specific suggestions I would like to make:
l. Do not let artists buy back their art at less than market price. That would be unfair to the taxpayer, to the Art Bank and to those who will lease the art. The Art Bank should use income to buy art. The artist already will have profited from a sale to the Art Bank. If the work is to be sold, the artist could have first crack at it, but at fair market value.
2. Juries of selection should be artists only. Artists are not perfect, but it has been my experience that they are better jurors than other art experts.
3. Get a list of the hundreds of art competitions around the country and find out who the prize winners are and ask them to submit slides. This is not an infallible system but it is a better grass-roots search than sending exhausted and peevish juries all over the place, and, in the long run, a more fair appraisal. It will also save money.
4. Do not neglect crafts if it is practical to bring them into the program. The line between art and craft is not very distinct anymore. The same goes for photography.
5. Sculpture, unfortunately, may have to be de-emphasized because it is hard to loan out. Also, the proportion of good two-dimensional work to good three-dimensional work is, I would guess, about 20 to 1.
I hope this legislation is successful. The Art Bank will be a good and positive way to bring art into our life. Thank you for asking me to testify.