Last week, President Trump’s administration released a proposed 2018 budget that eliminated funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among other agencies. Created in 1965, the NEA “funds, promotes, and strengthens the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation” and has been a critical resource for the LA Forum throughout its thirty year history. To understand the importance of the NEA’s work in the design community, the LA Forum talked to Jeff Speck, a city planner and Design Director of the NEA from 2003-2007, now based in Brookline, MA.
Could you describe some of the work the NEA does to raise awareness of design and urban issues?
In the design discipline, which has been a part of the NEA from its beginning, the Agency works in two main ways: it gives grants to non-profits all over the country that need help promoting and advancing design in all its forms; and it creates and runs special programs—called Leadership Initiatives—where it sees an unmet need. For its grant-making, the Agency pulls together expert panels twice a year to ensure that funding goes to those organizations with the best, the most exciting, and the most impactful ideas. Its grants are only as good as the best that America has to offer. . . so that’s pretty good. Many of these are directed straight at raising awareness of design and urban issues, including museum exhibits, books and websites, public planning workshops, and design events like Open House Chicago, the annual weekend festival that turns that city’s architecture into one big, free, living museum. I’ll talk about Leadership Initiatives ahead.
What impact do you think defunding the NEA would have on the architecture and urban design communities, and cities in general?
Better to look to the past and ask what outcomes we now cherish were made possible by NEA design grants. These include the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, the preservation of St. Louis’ Union Station and the warehouses of Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, the publishing of Learning from Las Vegas, and the creation of the GSA’s Design Excellence Program, which brought high design to decades of federal building construction all around the US. That’s just the tip of an iceberg that is thousands of grants deep. A future without an NEA would be future in which we miss out on subsequent generations of similar accomplishments.
In your tenure as the NEA Design Director, what were some of the highlights and accomplishments that you’re most proud of?
As a City Planner, I was proud to help lead the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, the NEA Leadership Initiative that teaches city planning fundamentals to U.S. Mayors—about forty each year—and helps them solve the most pressing urban design challenges facing their cities. A handful of this program’s 1,000-plus graduates are now in Congress, and one hopes that they will fight to save it—and the NEA. This program has helped to change the face of so many American communities, as you can see at micd.org. I also managed to help start a new Initiative of my own, the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, which helps U.S. governors combat suburban sprawl. It too, lives on—for now, along with other key programs directed exclusively at the small towns of rural America. But it is hard to have hope for these programs, and for executive branch agencies like the NEA, in the face of an executive whose best design idea is gold curtains.