When I consulted the NEA as to why my own "Our Town" grant was not funded, the notes from the review committee focused on excellence: WHO is going to be providing the art, and what are their credentials? Notice that my proposal was for a participatory arts program, and so the artists would be members of the community, not imported "professionals" from outside the community. Participatory arts, as the NEA knows from having recently published it own studies on the subject, is about enhancing the creativity of the citizenry. Credentials and press coverage are irrelevant.
Scott reaches the conclusion:
No, I think this demands direct action. Over the past 45 years, "excellence" has gotten the lion's share of commitment from the NEA; now, it is time to shift the emphasis. Not simply back to equality among the three legs of the mission, but to go even further and give greater emphasis to geographic diversity and to arts education.
I think it's not about being "pro-" or "anti-" excellence, I think it's more a problem with how "excellence" is defined. It seems as though the idea of excellence that the NEA is espousing in the first section is excellence in comparison with a global arts community of connoisseurs.
Suppose, though, you have a community of 3,000 people. There's an arts organization that manages to involve 2,000 people either as audiences or participants. This arts organization is the pride of the community, and it's been running for ten or fifteen years. It gets one review a year, which is a nice article from the local paper. Maybe they do a lot of big participatory musicals with big ensembles -- not exactly with great resources, or great performers, etc. Is that excellent? Would the NEA think it's excellent?
Excellence has to be from the perspective of the community that the art is working in.