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the NEA

National Guard troops in Watts after the declaration of martial law, Los Angeles, August 1965. Photo: Lawrence Schiller/Polaris Communications/Getty Images.

IN SEPTEMBER 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation that would establish the National Endowment for the Arts, the largest arts funder in the United States. In March of this year, President Trump proposed its elimination. While any immediate action has been forestalled, the threat to thousands of community organizations, museums, artists, and projects that benefit from NEA grants still looms. In light of this, Artforum asked five distinguished artists and critics to reflect on the NEA’s vital impact.

JOHNIE SCOTT

IN THE MONTHS immediately following the Watts riots in Los Angeles in August 1965, a few rays of light began to shine in the smoldering darkness. The brightest of these was the Westminster Neighborhood Association, an outreach program of the Presbyterian Church, and the largest private social-services agency in Watts, headed by a no-nonsense, forward black man named Archie Hardwick.

The WNA purchased one of the few buildings that had not been burned down or destroyed during the riots, a ramshackle two-story wooden building on Beach Street, right across from the South Los Angeles funeral home my friends and I used to sneak through when we were kids. Before the riots, Beach Street was the red-light district in Watts, off-limits to youngsters. But all that changed with the fires. That building turned out to be the beating heart that brought life back to our community.

Before the fires, LA was as segregated as any city in the American South. You saw white people there during the daylight hours doing business and then watched as they got in their cars or boarded the red train and left for their homes on the Westside in Beverly Hills or, in the other direction, in San Pedro, Harbor City, Manhattan Beach, or Long Beach. When night fell, Watts, a tiny five-and-a-half-square-mile area with five housing projects, became blacktown.

All that began to change with Westminster under Hardwick’s leadership. I can still remember walking westward from the Jordan Downs project, where I’d grown up, past the rubble of downtown Watts, careful to avoid the broken glass that still lay in the streets, past the burned-out buildings, some of which still had SOUL BROTHER and BLOOD BROTHER scrawled on them (graffitied by black merchants and storekeepers trying to protect their small businesses from Molotov cocktails). In the air, you could hear the music from what seemed like a million radios tuned into KGFJ-AM and that disc jockey who went by the name of the Magnificent Montague as he played “Soul Man,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “In the Midnight Hour,” “My Girl,” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

We wanted that change, and badly. But such help was not forthcoming until one of the unlikeliest people you could ever imagine came to help make that change happen. He managed to find Westminster, driving down from Beverly Hills, and, while there, met with Hardwick.

This man was then in his early fifties. He came from LA “old money”: His father was the late B. P. Schulberg, who ran Paramount Pictures from 1925 to 1932 and was one of the original Hollywood moguls. His name was Budd Schulberg, and he was a novelist and had earned an Oscar for the screenplay to On the Waterfront (1955), directed by Eli “Gadget” Kazan and starring a young Marlon Brando. Schulberg had a stammer that was even more pronounced when he got excited and his bearded face turned florid.

Hardwick agreed to let Schulberg use one of the rooms at WNA as an experiment to start what eventually became the now-historic Watts Writers’ Workshop. Schulberg made the drive down every day from his home in Beverly Hills and sat for hours in that room, though no one came at first—no one, that is, interested in the creative writing he volunteered to teach for free. Those blacks who did show up seemingly had but one purpose, and that was to challenge Schulberg’s motive, his sincerity, and his reasons for coming to Watts in the first place.

This was a very different sort of criticism from what Schulberg had received during the time of Joe “Machine Gun” McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), when he and Kazan, among others, were pilloried for having given up, as the accusations went, some of Hollywood’s best and brightest talents for being leftist. The allegations were something that Schulberg had to live with for the rest of his life and that clouded the work he was trying to do, with little to no help, in a Watts begging for a helping hand.

To his considerable credit, Schulberg did not give in or give up. He contacted friends who might be willing to help. I remember being reached in the projects by a childhood friend, Leumas Sirrah, who told me about Schulberg and the effort to get this workshop started. It was Sirrah who asked me to “come check this white man out and see if he is legit, or just trying to hustle the community.”

I agreed to do just that. By that time, as the first black accepted to Harvard from the Watts projects, I was active in several community organizations. I knew Hardwick, but not Schulberg; I had gone to WNA and listened along with a roomful of others when the great folk singer Odetta came and gave a free concert. But I hadn’t gone to see what the workshop was about.

Only a few of my closest friends knew that I was writing throughout this time: poetry, short stories, and essays. We shared our work with one another in the projects, but not with Schulberg. Not until the day when I did make that walk, did sit in that room, did listen to others as they verbally and physically challenged Schulberg, who kept his cool before I stood up and said, “Let’s give this man a break. If he comes back after this, then we’ll know if he is for real or not.”

And that is where our friendship was forged, one block off Charcoal Alley, and where the Watts Writers’ Workshop began, eventually extending its influence and message of community empowerment to the Senate Committee on Urban Affairs and countless national media outlets, as well as through numerous poems, plays, novels, and publications. Soon the workshop grew to fourteen members, including myself, Sirrah, Harry Dolan, James Thomas Jackson, Sonora McKeller, Birdell Chew Moore, Guadelupe de Saavedra, Ryan Vallejo Kennedy, Blossom Powe, Ernest Mayhand, Jimmie Sherman, Jeanne Taylor, and Louise Meriwether. And we finally gained some solvency: Schulberg had been successful in attracting our first independent major grant, from the National Endowment for the Arts. The grant enabled us to move out of that tiny room at WNA and a half-block down Beach Street, a still-rough area, where we purchased a single-frame house with a backyard that we quickly named the Douglass House Foundation. The Douglass House became our meeting place. Schulberg taught the writers (i.e., those interested in writing short stories, essays, and novels) in the front part of the house, and to my surprise, he elected me to teach the poets, which I did in a small guesthouse in the back. Several of the poets were homeless and unemployed, and lived in the Douglass House.

From those humble beginnings, the workshop grew. Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, Roy Wilkins, Claude Brown, and Maya Angelou all visited and engaged in vigorous exchanges. Schulberg arranged for a special “coming-out” of the workshop, a black-tie affair that took place at the Cocoanut Grove, where poetry I had written along with Sherman and Sirrah was performed by some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

That pace-setting grant from the NEA allowed us to expand our headquarters and take on an executive director, Talmadge Spratt. We continued to move onward and upward. In 1965, we completed a one-hour documentary, The Angry Voices of Watts, which aired nationwide in 1966 on NBC News and won an Emmy. And we were able, through the New American Library, to publish the landmark, critically praised anthology From the Ashes: Voices of Watts (1967).

By this time, Schulberg had invited me to come to New York City with him as the workshop launched a Harlem branch, headed by Fred Hudson. Out of that Harlem branch Hudson would write the controversial screenplay The Education of Sonny Carson (1974), based on the life of the Brooklyn activist, which became a major motion picture, while Meriwether, who had moved to Harlem as well, published the well-received Daddy Was a Number Runner (1970). Quincy Troupe, who began with us in Watts, moved to New York and became a poet of international renown while writing the book The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) with Chris Gardner and Mim Eichler Rivas, which was made into a feature film starring Will Smith, and the 2015 biopic Miles Ahead, based on his coauthored book of the same name on the jazz trumpeter nonpareil Miles Davis.

Our theme throughout the years, which kept our focus intact, was a simple yet powerful one with great relevance for the times we now live in: Art can be a tool for social change.

As I look back over those fifty years to the roots of the Watts Writers’ Workshop and how we grew, the lives we touched, and the issues we brought to light in our chosen roles as voices for the voiceless, I cannot help but think of and thank Budd Schulberg for having the courage and vision to enter Watts during such a rough period in our nation’s history. And it must be said that without the NEA’s initial support, this chapter of America’s arts legacy might never have been written.

Johnie Scott is Professor Emeritus of Africana studies at California State University, Northridge, and a Cofounder of the Watts Writers’ Workshop.

Record shop in Watts, Los Angeles, August 19, 1965. Photo: Paul Slade/Paris Match/Getty Images.

BARBARA ROSE

IN EARLY 1966, a few months after Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson established the NEA in 1965, Henry Geldzahler was named head of its New York panel by his friend Roger L. Stevens, the first chairman of the organization. My recollection is that a committee that included myself, Hilton Kramer, and Frank Stella met in Henry’s apartment to decide on the inaugural artists’ grants. There were no applications. We gave small but significant grants to artists we knew were in desperate need: for example, $25,000 to Mark di Suvero to buy a crane so he could work on a large scale. Later that same year, in the fall, there were regional panels. I was on the New York panel with Geldzahler, Robert Motherwell, and George Segal. After Alfred Leslie’s studio burned down, destroying most of his art, we gave him an emergency grant that allowed him to go on working. These grants had a significant impact on the history of American art.

The yearly budget for the NEA today is less than what the government spends on security and travel for Trump-family trips to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, where the president just raised the rental fee for the chamber-music society so much that they must find another place to play. (Needless to say, he has never attended a concert.) Under pressure from Congress in the late 1990s, NEA grants were splintered into tiny sums sprinkled on congressional districts where they are important to local art centers—often in districts that voted for Trump. While the arts are on track to get no government funding, David Koch got a huge tax deduction for his 2014 gift of $65 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to pay for fountains engraved with his name (in gold, of course). Defunding the arts endowment is just another step in the transfer of the nation’s wealth to a handful of greedy, Machiavellian plutocrats coddled by our increasingly privatized cultural institutions. Bring out the fiddles in time for the fires.

Barbara Rose is a critic and curator based in New York and Madrid.

Maya Lin at the construction site of her Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC, JUly 12, 1982. Photo: John McDonnell/Washington Post/Getty Images.

MAYA LIN

THE NEA has left all of us a legacy: Its impact on visual art, arts education, music, dance, writing, and the performing arts has reached every corner of this country. And in carrying out this mission, it has sent a message that we are a country that values our arts and culture at the highest level of government. For me personally, the NEA’s initial support of the national competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was extremely important—without the agency’s backing, that work might never have existed. The NEA’s decision to hold a competition for that project helped create an open and public dialogue, engaging the country in a highly charged discussion of the work, and that allowed us to reflect on, remember, and understand that period of our history. The NEA has consistently had the courage to support controversial works, and it is shameful to see the organization under attack now. Our society will be all the more impoverished if we lose sight of the fact that the arts are as much a part of who we are as anything else that we do.

Maya Lin is a designer and artist based in New York.

ED RUSCHA

I RECEIVED AN NEA GRANT in 1966 that was crucial to my future and survival as an artist. However, our new, forward-thinking government sees no use or virtue in the arts or humanities of this country. Kill those programs and spend their budget allotment on the maintenance of Mar-a-Lago, such as replating all the gold fixtures to make a brighter and greater America.

Ed Ruscha is an artist based in Los Angeles.

IAN VOLNER

FRACTIOUS, DIVERSE, a bit of a mess, Washington, DC, is more American than its legions of detractors would care to admit—except in its architecture, where the endless corridors of old-world Neoclassicism are interrupted by only one truly native specimen. The Old Post Office, architect Willoughby J. Edbrooke’s emphatically American Romanesque stronghold on Pennsylvania Avenue, was known by that name even before World War I, scarcely a quarter century after its construction, when the papers were already calling for its demolition to make way for newer and bigger downtown developments. Yet having repeatedly dodged the wrecking ball, the building was adopted during the Johnson administration as a pet cause of longtime NEA chairwoman Nancy Hanks, who died just before her agency and a host of others moved into the restored complex. Sadly, the feds couldn’t make a go of it, and finally leased the property in 2013 to a certain hotelier-showman—a man who now threatens to destroy the very government body that saved it. Think the irony is too much? How about the symbolism: a helpless giant, trapped in the clutches of a sinister madman.

Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture and design to the The New Republic, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, and New Yorker.com.

Visit our archive at artforum.com/inprint for decades of coverage of the NEA, including the September 1989 Editor’s Letter by Ida Panicelli and Anthony Korner, and texts by Maurice Berger, Cynthia Carr, Hans Haacke, and Gary Indiana, among others.