“I became an artist when I received a grant from the NEA in 1989,” says Glenn Ligon, whose midcareer retrospective opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art next month [look for coverage in our May issue]. The New York-based artist majored in art at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and participated in the Whitney’s Independent Study Program. But he was still working as a legal proofreader and wondering how much time he should devote to art when the National Endowment for the Arts gave him an individual artist grant for drawing.
One year later, Ligon’s text-based painting Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background) was shown at a now-defunct Manhattan gallery BACA Downtown. New Museum director Lisa Phillips, then a curator at the Whitney, saw it and recommended the young artist for inclusion in the 1991 Whitney Biennial. That year’s biennial would also feature fellow NEA grant winners Vito Acconci, Lorna Simpson, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Bruce Nauman, among others.
Today, the NEA does not fund individual artists—only arts organizations and communities, a change that occurred in the mid-’90s, under a Congress whose Republican majority opposed much government funding of the arts. The current budget for the NEA is $167.5 million (less than the total of one off-year Impessionist and Modern auction for Christie’s or Sotheby’s), which President Obama proposed cutting by 13 percent, to $146.2 million for fiscal year 2012. According to an Americans for the Arts analysis of the Republican Study Committee recommendations, congressional Republicans would like to see the endowment totally disappear, however, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
During the late ’80s and early ’90s, as the culture wars played out in the halls of congress, individual grants such as Ligon’s were exactly what their proponents advocated: They encouraged and nurtured people who made art to the point where they could transform the phrase “I make some art” to “I am an artist.”
READ CARLY BERWICK’S FEATURE ON LIGON IN THE MAY ISSUE OF ART IN AMERICA.
ABOVE: UNTITLED (I FEEL MOST COLORED WHEN I AM THROWN AGAINST A SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND). COURTESY METROPOLITAN MUSEUM NEW YORK.