Life, Learning, and Legacy

An Interview with Ted Berger

Nancy Fushan

As arts philanthropy evolves in the twenty-first century, one constant remains at the center — the artist. And longtime funder, advocate, and activist Ted Berger has devoted his professional career as well as an equally busy retirement to making artists a central focus of his life.
Berger retired in 2005 as the leader of the New York Foundation for the Arts (he is now executive director emeritus). During his three decades at NYFA, Berger developed the organization’s pioneering work to increase and advance financial support and professional development opportunities for artists. Today, he is treasurer of the Joan Mitchell Foundation and executive director of NYCreates, a service organization for craft artists. His numerous community board and committee positions include work for organizations such as ArtsConnection, the Asian American Arts Alliance, the CUE Art Foundation, International Studio & Curatorial Program, the Design Trust for Public Space, the New York City Arts Coalition, and CERF+. Berger is considered an arts philanthropy “elder” and one of the foremost thinkers about cultural policy and support for contemporary artists.
The GIA Reader asked Berger to share his thoughts about the arts, artists, and life in general with journalist and independent foundation consultant Nancy Fushan.
Ted Berger

Nancy Fushan Is there a distinctive role for artists in the twenty-first century?

Ted Berger I’m not sure that artists’ roles are any different today from what they’ve been historically. They are critical witnesses, commentators, celebrators . . . observers of what is going on in society and in our hearts. Given where we are, in a global sense, the role of artist as connector is increasingly important. The arts community in particular — in this fragmented world [of] enormous uncertainty — has both an opportunity and challenge to help people make connections wherever possible. Not that it has ever been that different, but it’s part of the world I’m in now and see in the future. I’m particularly concerned about how artists and arts organizations can provide “connective tissue” for our society.

NF This sounds very similar to the analysis offered by cultural activist Arlene Goldbard in her recent book The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & the Future [Waterlight Press, 2013].

TB Arlene is a good friend and colleague. Her book reminded me of another — Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives [John Naisbitt, 1988], which fascinated me by showing what was happening on a global basis. Arlene is similarly showing the multiple connections the arts are making — these megatrends as she sees them; the possibility of hope she presents has buoyed me up. She’s helped me see the work that we’re all doing is part of a continuum of change.

NF Can you describe in more detail what you see as a particular connection?

TB Consider all the work that’s gone on in youth arts education in K–12 and afterschool. There’s finally starting to be some serious effort to look at [arts and] older people. We haven’t really thought about these as bookend issues and examined their implications for lifelong learning. It’s “womb to tomb” stuff. New efforts are starting, yet we’re not as advanced in some areas, and, depending on your perspective, we may even be losing ground in arts education. But if I look with the “glass half full” perspective, there are some new things clearly happening with creative aging. This is but one example that bodes well for making connections between and among people of all ages. A crucial role of the next generation of artists and administrators will be to make more connections between multiple societal issues and, at the same time, do more “translating,” more “connecting the dots,” between and among sectors, to address collective and individual concerns.

NF What will be the greatest challenge in moving this ahead for artists, young and old?

TB Beyond the obvious issue of funding, I’m not sure whether the large numbers of artists coming out of the training institutions are thinking about cross-sector issues as an important part of their practice. Perhaps it’s seen as a secondary way. Moreover, from the nonarts community perspective, I’m also not sure that most people understand what we’re talking about. What we call “art” or “culture,” to many is “recreation” or “tradition.” How does our language in the arts help people understand how we can help meet their needs? When so many community and senior centers are fighting for basics, how are the arts seen as essentials? Why are the arts more necessary now than ever? Arlene’s book shows those connections, but I’m not sure we’ve pushed hard enough. I do feel this is the critical work ahead — to strengthen the intrinsic value of the arts in the lives of all people and our communities.

NF So you’re left to wonder . . . is this really anything new?

TB No! It’s all existed historically; we’re part of an evolutionary process. I think we’ve made progress, but as I get older I get impatient. I keep hoping we’ll advance faster.

NF Let’s turn to the actual art being made. There are some in the field who have expressed concern that with the increase of multidisciplinary approaches, there’s also been less deep knowledge about and mastery of individual disciplines. What do you think about that?

TB I’m not sure artists are being educated in a well-rounded enough way. Do they read enough? Do they see enough? Are they curious enough? What I see increasingly in their work is extraordinary technique, but not necessarily lots of complex ideas advancing our perception of who we are and what our world is about. That’s probably a gross generalization, but I remember a colleague years ago saying, “In order to be multidisciplinary, you really need to know your discipline.” We can stretch the boundaries of a discipline, but there has to be understanding of what it means to push boundaries. Technology certainly makes it easier to cross boundaries, but are we looking in depth at what we are losing and/or gaining in this process?

NF Another development fostered by technology is the potential of anyone to become a curator.

TB I’m a bit biased here. There are many people who don’t have all the traditional curatorial background and credentials, but they have a perception and a vision. The curatorial work is part of their practice. Just being credentialed isn’t the right way anymore in mostly anything — the way artists are educated, the way curators are educated, and the way people are educated. Just because people have MBAs and PhDs doesn’t mean the world is in a better place. The artist support system has become overly dependent on credentials. There are many extraordinarily gifted artists — self-taught, community-based, without BFAs and MFAs who, unfortunately, too often remain under-recognized and undervalued.

NF In an ideal world, what would artist education and training look like?

TB Clearly a pre-K to 12 support system is essential; knowledgeable arts teachers in the schools are critical along with access to outside professionals — artists and cultural institutions. You need a sequential understanding of the disciplines themselves as well as their relation to the curriculum. Out of that environment, some students will show some talent. And those talented people need to be nurtured — whatever that means, especially so they can believe in themselves. Often when someone is talented, she or he needs to be nurtured and mentored in an appropriate preprofessional environment, both in special classes and schools during schooltime and after. Then, if someone is nuts about going on, how does one advance education and training?

This opens up the whole messy issue of access and affordability. Who gets to go on to postsecondary education? Who can get into and attend most BFA, MFA programs? What can we do to make artist-training programs more inclusive — not just with international students and others who can afford tuition, but with domestic students of color and others who deserve the opportunity but simply require much more economic support than is presently available?

NF In other words the equity issue . . .

TB Increasingly, I feel we must look at strengths and weaknesses of the community college system as an arts gateway for people. I don’t know the system well enough to know what it might offer. But I keep wondering if there’s a mapping or inventory needed of all the arts disciplines in this segment of the educational system. I’m looking for different ways because I’m deeply distressed about access and affordability. This is very complicated — there just isn’t enough financial aid available in artist-training institutions. Recent articles discuss how kids of color are not applying or going to key academic institutions. They’re staying close to home for family and economic reasons. That’s why the community college system is inextricably linked to this equity issue. So what then — if you’re talented, but are not in the academic system at all — how does the artist support system embrace those self-taught artists who make work at the community level?

NF You’ve also written about the potential for incentives to address some of the equity issues.

TB Certainly, the student loan situation is ridiculous. How do we build in loan forgiveness for public service in the arts? Other nonfinancial incentives are necessary. If you’re a kid of color and if no one on your faculty looks like you, what is that telling you about the future? When there aren’t enough of your peers on campus, what is that telling you? Moreover, if getting to the academy is a major challenge, increasingly staying in the field is perhaps even more daunting.

The period after a student comes out of the BFA or MFA cocoon is an extremely vulnerable one. It needs to be looked at carefully, as the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project studies are doing. Additionally, most academic institutions don’t take their arts alumni seriously enough because they don’t see them as major donors. Imagine how peer education, lifelong learning, and sharing opportunities can be strengthened through such networks. We need more “jump-start” programs for artists at critical junctures . . . and not just for those with the credentials from the “academy,” but also for people whose work and values are credentialed from their communities. We need a better, more comprehensive and inclusive artist support system for nurturing the increasing numbers of people striving to be “artists.”

NF I read a blog post the other day that quoted Claire Chase, the young musician and founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble. In her commencement address to graduates of Northwestern University’s School of Music she said, “Whether we like it or not, the calling of our generation is not to occupy positions created for us. Our calling is to create positions for ourselves and others, to improvise and blow the ceiling off of anything resembling a limitation. In a word, our calling is to be entrepreneurs.” What’s your take?

TB I totally agree with this. Today, young artists don’t really think about grants. Young artists are making it happen. They’re on the Internet; always in control. I think artists always want to be in control, but the patronage and funding systems change the balance of the power dynamics. I’ve raised and given away a lot of money, so I’m really sensitive to this power dynamic — in both the public and the private sectors. We don’t talk about power and control nearly enough in the arts. Funders can so intimidate artists that the often overwhelming power of the artists’ creative ideas and their impact on people can disappear in the rigmarole of grant guidelines, accountability, and competition. Yet, I often wonder if it’s the funders who are really intimidated by the independence of the artists. Younger artists seem determined to say, “Fine. We don’t need you! We’ll go out and create our own thing!” They’re bypassing traditional gatekeepers. In a sense, New York seems like the early seventies. With all these start-up efforts that artists are creating, there’s all this excitement. But will these start-ups have the opportunity to grow? What artists are willing to do when they’re young is not necessarily going to be enough when they get a bit older.

NF But given that the younger artists may be more geared to self-sufficiency, is there some potential that they’ll come up with creative solutions we can’t yet envision?

TB There’s no question. Crowdsourcing, for example, is a whole new approach to finding new money. It’s that creative, entrepreneurial, independent spirit making things happen. The old funding system is struggling for existence. Artists have to go out and find new ways.

NF I know your last comment isn’t limited to younger artists. And I also know you are devoted to other concerns that are important to artists at later stages in their careers.

TB Increasingly, I’m very struck with issues of documentation. Through the beginning work of the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s CALL [Creating a Living Legacy] program, I’ve developed a new appreciation of how vital documentation is in the lives of artists and how critical it is in all our lives to help people remember what we try to do. People want to know they made a bit of a difference. Whether we are working artists or folks trying to help artists, most of us won’t ever be household names. Occasionally, some of us might be a footnote in someone’s esoteric thesis. But most of us want someone to remember us and appreciate our work. So often, with artists, it may not be one’s immediate family. But we’re all part of many different “families,” so many different communities — concentric circles of people with whom we connect. As we think about legacy in relation to these multiple communities, documentation — especially of artist work — has a greater relevance. But, once again, what comprehensive system can we put in place to help artists in all disciplines begin the difficult process of documenting and archiving their work? What mapping is there to see what programs and services exist throughout the country in order to understand what may be necessary in this area in the future?

Think how many programs in states provide fellowships to artists. Yet how many artists are listed in any official state archives? Do communities even know the artists of note in their neighborhoods? It’s one thing to document and have information exist in the Cloud; it’s another matter to deal with the real “stuff” in studios and warehouses. We haven’t begun to examine archival storage issues. Where could physical archives be? What system might be developed for this? Where do library systems, local museums, our national institutions, et cetera — all fit into this?

Another of my huge concerns is the preparedness of the arts community as we face increasing emergencies and natural disasters. Since the effort of arts funders to deal with an earthquake in San Francisco and in the aftermath of 9/11 and NYFA’s development of an emergency fund for NYC artists and arts organizations, I’ve been working in a national coalition with many others on issues of emergency preparedness in our field. Few of us want to face the difficult realities of what disasters mean. However, planning and readiness for emergencies must be integral to everyone’s strategic thinking about the present and the future. As large-scale disasters keep occurring everywhere in too many communities all too frequently, the important work being led by CERF+ and South Arts’ ArtsReady Project is critical to keeping artists and arts organizations going during such difficult times. When artists and organizations can function during crises, it helps others reenergize their own spirit and that of our whole communities to keep going. In some ways, I believe, my “preparedness” concerns are linked to my concerns about “legacy,” for they both are about history and memory and survival.

NF Do you see the beginnings of systemic thinking about this?

TB Yes. There are valuable building blocks. Some work on artists’ estate planning has been done — from early efforts by some of us for artists with AIDS to the artists’ estate work of the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation. Artist Trust has begun conversations with its state archives and museums. There’s the work of by the McKnight Foundation. But generally, I think, particularly in communities of color, documentation and archiving is a huge issue that must be addressed. With the rise of increased public funding — and the development of the NEA — during the so-called Golden Era, so many new voices were recognized. Don’t we need to recognize the achievement and legacy of those artists and organizations in some systemic way? We have a responsibility to remember, honor, and celebrate decades of work. Are we so possessed by today’s struggles and the new and the future that we have difficulty fitting the past and the present into the future? Only by knowing our past can we really advance into the future.

NF There is such urgency in your comments . . . is this reflective of a man in his seventies?

TB It’s very personal to me. These days I’m thinking, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” in terms of my own family, legal issues . . . How am I preparing for the inevitable? What have I accomplished in my time here? In some ways, even when I was younger, I’ve been interested in issues of aging. My mother was a bookkeeper at a Jewish Home for the Aged. So from an early age I was brought up with an awareness of geriatric issues. I’ve also been fortunate — though I’m not Methuselah — to have entered this field “in the beginning . . .” of this new era in arts development during the seventies, working with so many others trying to build this field.

So at this stage I’m trying to think about the legacy of my generation. What did we start to build? What has to continue? What has to end? Where do we fit on a historic continuum? How do we help people think about what’s ahead, learn from our mistakes, refresh what we started, create new visions, “to blow the ceiling off . . . limitation,” as Claire Chase says, and learn from their own mistakes?

NF Those are big questions. Have you started to formulate some answers?

TB My generation of administrators tried to construct a new support system for the arts and artists throughout the country. We tried to build a more democratic infrastructure for artists and arts organizations as we also tried to strengthen our roots in communities. Maybe the system evolved in a more piecemeal fashion rather than as the well-balanced cultural ecosystem it needs to be. Perhaps we talked more to ourselves than we talked and/or listened to others. As too often we overbuilt our cultural complexes and our institutions, did we forget about the greater complexities within our often divided and fragmented communities? As our art “products” — our productions and exhibitions — became bigger and bigger, did we lose track of the core creative “process” and the very artists who make such productions and exhibits possible?

Sure, we made plenty of errors and didn’t think through as much as we should have. But this was a time of optimism and hope, growing out of the sixties, when we believed that artists and the arts really mattered and — despite our naïveté — with some nickels and dimes — we really tried to build something that just might change the world.

NF Do we need to move toward something different, and, if so, what aspects of the past are worth preserving?

TB I think there was an artist centeredness to those early years. “Artists” were running organizations. As we’ve grown and professionalized, I’m not sure where that artist centeredness exists in many institutions today. There still is, within the field, a whole group of artist-centered organizations — some providing money directly to artists, some serving as incubators for the development and presentation of work, some serving culturally specific and/or new immigrant communities. Yet far too many of those organizations are struggling with major funding challenges. I’m concerned about this whole tier of incubator organizations — those that have been around for a while and those that have yet to come into being — because they’re critical to a strong and diverse artist support system. Something needs to happen to shake it all up and make us see the vulnerabilities in our artist support ecosystem. But I’m not sure what. Increased support will certainly help, but that alone isn’t enough. For example, most funders respond to the 501(c)(3) structure, yet increasingly, questions arise about how viable such a corporate structure is to the vitality of many organizations. Are funders ready to change their founding IRS status in response or willing to include different models? Look at the whole issue of fiscal sponsorship — if folks have trouble with that, how do you get to L3C?

Moreover, since the advocacy system for the arts is primarily institutionally and organizationally dominated, artists, smaller arts organizations, and community-based efforts are often not even on the radar screen. They often may not have enough infrastructure in place to make their voices heard to do the necessary pushing. There has to be a more inclusive way of having artists and diverse communities at the table. I’m hoping with the rise of artist-endowed foundations that there would be some increased understanding of the artist-centered ecosystem, but it’s too early to tell.

NF Of course, a large share of the role of funding individual artists has shifted dramatically during your career from the public sector to the private sector . . .

TB The loss of the NEA support, not just in dollars, but in the psychic role it historically played in its leadership function in artist support and its seemingly diminished developmental role in artists’ lives has been bothersome. I still think there are many ways, for instance around “legacy,” that the Endowment could still do more for artists. I’m also increasingly worried about the state of state arts councils and the diminution of what they can and can’t do. What do we all lose when government doesn’t provide enough direct support for individual voices of artists, of scholars, of scientists, of people exploring new ideas and possibilities? In a country founded on the premise that individuals make a difference, we don’t seem to want to support the people who make a difference!

However, government is still very involved in supporting its citizens. That’s why I’m increasingly concerned about the strength of our advocacy efforts — in coalition with others — to maintain at all levels the eternal vigilance necessary to pay attention to general issues affecting all of us, for example, free-expression issues, copyright laws. What happens with unemployment insurance or affordable housing? What happens to affordable healthcare for all people, including our own creative sector? Government’s not out of the business of supporting individuals, but politically we’re now not the only ones in a pickle.

NF The NEA and some national and regional private funders have been focusing lately on creative placemaking and how artists play a role in community revitalization. What are your thoughts on all this?

TB They’re very mixed. We need a lot more examples. I’m increasingly troubled that we create these valuable oases that give spaces to artists . . . but are we really seen as part of the true fabric of the community? Are we creating new kinds of ghettos? What I’m seeing, at least in New York, is a lot of “reverse NIMBY.” That’s where residents now fear artists coming into the neighborhood, because of class issues that surface with gentrification. It’s the same concern that artists used to have about new affluent residents forcing them out of SoHo and other places. I’m not sure we’ve thought through all the consequences of creative placemaking. But, I fear, my perspective on this is very narrow and provincial. For all of the real estate discussions among artists and about artists here in New York, we’re never really at the economic table in any true sense of the word. We want to be, and we have ideas and even solutions. But I don’t think we’re seen as being . . . the “drivers.” I think these creative placemaking sites have to be seen as critical assets where more community mixed-use buildings allow artists and nonartists to live and work together.

Through my work with the Actors Fund I’m involved with a project with Manhattan Plaza, a midtown Manhattan apartment complex that provides affordable housing for people in the performing arts. As many of its original residents are aging, people hope to see it designated as a NORC [Naturally Occurring Retirement Community]. Working in conjunction with the Visiting Nurse Service, the project is examining the needs of Manhattan Plaza residents as well as the needs of the neighborhood’s nonarts senior community. More and more, we’ve got to look at these common approaches because when we work with others, there can be mutual benefit. Through this project we intend to improve general services for all seniors in the area, and at the same time develop new creative opportunities through the arts allowing all seniors access to more opportunities to explore who they are and who they might be. I believe that people want to see themselves as creative people at all stages in life. We in the arts and cultural community can help people find the essence of who they are. We haven’t begun to plumb the incredible opportunities to get nonarts people to understand why the arts and artists need to be in communities and how we can grow together.

NF You sound optimistic and engaged. What keeps you motivated?

TB I’ve been blessed. I love the work I do. What keeps me grounded? I have a wonderful family. Without my incredible wife of nearly fifty years — without whom (like so many other unsung people supporting all of us in this crazy business) — I simply couldn’t survive. Our remarkable son decided to go into the “family business,” but in a much better way than I did (as an artist, a teacher, and curator). He’s regularly challenging my assumptions and has kept me aware about the way younger people think.

And once again, I have to say I’ve been unbelievably fortunate. When I was at NYFA and in the middle of the paperwork and budgets, I’d just go into the fellowship panels and sit and listen, and see the work. It is very humbling and a constant reminder about whom we serve. It goes back to that power dynamic. Even now when I go to panel meetings at the Mitchell Foundation or talk with kids and artists at one of the other organizations I’m involved with or attend exhibitions and shows . . . when you see so much work — whether I begin to understand it all or even like it — I am often overwhelmed by all these possible creative ideas and ways human beings express themselves and care about our world. It is extraordinary. We are dealing with such important and fragile things that affect people’s lives. We need to be learning constantly and pushing ourselves because there’s so much more work we all need to do.

It’s a privilege.