I've sat on both sides of the NEA table. The weekly public radio show I host -- PRI's "Studio 360," the only nationally broadcast program dedicated to covering culture and the arts -- has been receiving an annual NEA grant. And three years ago, I served on an NEA panel charged with parceling out "literature" grants to nonprofit magazines, community writing workshops, book festivals and the like. (Participating in that process and working with NEA employees in Washington -- smart, conscientious and cheerful, do-gooders in the best sense -- entirely changed my default view of the federal government.)
I wouldn't actually want to follow Dana Gioia as chair of the endowment, because it would be so hard to improve on his performance. (If any member of the Bush administration deserved a medal, it was he.) But if I had the job, I might:
* start building a large, modestly paid corps of young and old artists and musicians and writers -- something like Teach for America crossed with 826 -- who would be dispatched to train and inspire kids in schools that have cut back or eliminated arts classes
* establish a national system, in league with the Congress for New Urbanism, the National Charrette Institute, and perhaps HUD, under which communities trying to manage growth and/or preserve or create indigenous local character would have access to NEA-subsidized SWAT teams of sympathetic and experienced urban planners and architects
* steer the NEA's Arts Journalism Institutes toward seeding and nurturing Web-based enterprises that publish compelling, accessible arts journalism and criticism, to fill the void as print newspapers and magazines retreat and disappear
* create a U.S. version of Britain's Turner Prize, since visual art is the one major cultural realm that lacks its own major American prize; a credentialed panel of critics and curators would choose the annual shortlist of nominees for our Whistler (or Hopper or Rothko) Prize, and the winner would be chosen by online popular vote.