Last week, I told you how Councilman Robin Lumb — whom we’ve since learned will likely abandon his bid for supervisor of elections in favor of becoming the next Duval GOP chairman, and may seek reelection to his City Council seat — had sent a stern letter to the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville’s board members chiding the organization for an email the group had sent out rallying support for MOCA and its Project Atrium exhibit and against Clay Yarborough, who deemed said exhibit pornographic. In short, Lumb found it distasteful that the Cultural Council was singling out and criticizing one council member. He was also upset that the Cultural Council’s email contained a link to a story I had written that, in his words, contained “disparaging remarks” about Yarborough. (True.)
The email “is a rather ham-handed effort to exploit the controversy,” he wrote, “an effort that crossed several lines that should not have been crossed and that calls into question whether the Cultural Council understands its proper role and the limits inherent thereto.”
Per his request, I emailed Lumb Friday morning with a couple questions. He sent me his answers last night. As he expressed some concern about being quoted out of context, I told him I’d print our entire email exchange — my full question and his full answers — online, for all the world to see and assess. And here it is, passed along without comment. My questions are in bold. (My fuller thoughts will appear in print Wednesday.)
1) The CCGJ is in a sense repositioning itself less as a sort of pass-through agency — i.e., take money from Council, give money to the symphony and the Cummer and MOCA — than as a group of “advocates/activists” for the arts in Jacksonville. In your email, if I’m reading it right, you argue that the CCGJ should not be in the advocacy business, at least not with public funds, especially not when there’s any sort of controversy over publicly funded projects that involve elected officials. But isn’t that part of their mission — to be advocates for the arts in Jacksonville, especially when they view artistic expression as perhaps being threatened? I guess my overarching question is this: You say this incident calls into question whether the CCGJ understands its proper role. In your view, what should that role be?
My understanding is that the Cultural Council has always been an advocacy organization for the arts so I don't know about any so-called “transition.” Regardless, when a group like the Cultural Council starts to accept public funding they became an advocacy organization that of necessity needs to walk a fine line. That line was crossed when they used public funds to achieve a political objective: silencing a critic by shaming him. By sending an e-mail blast to its supporters that singled out a specific member of City Council for direct action and by providing a link to the various disparagements contained in your column, the Cultural Council went from principled advocacy to political activism. This is not an acceptable course of conduct for a publicly funded entity. This is not its proper role.
It's also improper for the Cultural Council to advance the notion of "freedom of artistic expression" in absolute terms. To do so is to abandon the concept of accountability for grants recipients. No one benefits from such an arrangement.
2) You reference the CCGJ “exploit[ing] the controversy,” because MOCA’s funding was never actually endangered. Exploited it how? Clearly they took the opportunity to rally support, and I think you’re right that it was pretty obvious the mayor wasn’t going to acquiesce. But how does that equate to exploitation — or more specifically, at what point does galvanizing support around a cause like this rise to the level of impropriety?
It rises to the level of impropriety — as explained above — when they go on the attack and abandon advocacy for activism.
As for saying they were exploiting the situation here is what I know: By the time the e-mail went out on Monday the arts community had already rallied to support the Museum of Contemporary Art (so had the media for that matter). Given this obvious public relations advantage and the legal precedents that affirm the First Amendment rights of grants recipients, it was simply not reasonable to believe, as of Monday, that the $233,000 grant was actually in danger. Under these circumstances the e-mail, as drafted, was overkill. So why would the Cultural Council have sent such an e-mail when they already had the upper hand? I think they did so to exploit (i.e., make use of, put to good use, make the most of, capitalize on, benefit from) the situation for the purpose of enlarging their constituency.
3) Finally: Philosophically, you say you’ve never been comfortable with government funding of the arts, but have opted to do so over the years because of your support for institutions like the Jax Symphony and MOSH. I was hoping to get you to expand on that a little — on what you think the proper relationship between government and the arts community should be. I think a lot of arts supporters would argue that a robust arts scene adds a layer of vibrancy to a city. But these sorts of arts scenes are seldom self-sustaining in a capitalist sense, and often need at least some government or nonprofit assistance to make ends meet. The tradeoff is that these communities make cities more engaging, vibrant places where creative people want to live, work and play, and that works out better for everyone. I wanted to get your thoughts on that.
There's no doubt that a “robust arts scene adds a layer of vibrancy to a city.” The question is, who pays? If the artistic offerings that are being served up have so little appeal that they're unable to attract paying customers then where do we draw the line? Elected officials don't press this particular point because we know that large cultural institutions like museums and orchestras cannot operate without some form of subsidy. We're able to justify the limited use of tax dollars to fund the arts because we've reached, over time, a fairly simple compromise between the respective parties: government concedes the necessity of having to provide a limited subsidy to certain arts organizations and the recipients concede the necessity of behaving themselves. This compromise only works when we have adults in the room.