Arts groups' efforts to keep US funding: just the first act

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Arts groups and their supporters from Broadway to White Sulfur Springs, Mont. , are letting Washington know they want it to continue its role as patron of the arts.

In efforts which might have made the late Cecil B. De Mille proud, these organizations are staging a lobbying extravaganza to head off the Reagan administration's plan to cut federal subsidies to the arts by 50 percent.

Even before the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) were notified officially of the new administration's intentions, their clients -- from tiny traveling theater troupes in the the Northwest to big-city operas like the Metropolitan in New York -- already were frantically lobbying, on the telephone and by letter, behind the scenes for the two agencies. And that is only the prologue.

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When hearings on the NEA budget proposal NEA commence April 28 in the Senate and May 7 in the House, the rooms are likely to have biggest cast of speakers in history, including out-of-work, off-off Broadway actors; Hollywood stars; opera singers; state arts gency spokesmen, corporate supporters of the arts, and more.

For fiscal year 1982, the Carter administration had requested $169 million for the NEH -- which funds museums, libraries, scholarly research, and public TV , and $175 million for the NEA -- which gives grants to theaters and opera and dance companies, as well as to playwrights and poets. The Reagan administration's Office of Management and Budget wants to cut the both NEA and NEH by about 50 percent.

But Livingston L. Biddle Jr., chairman of the NEA, says that "although it's very difficult to speculate what the eventual situation will be . . . the arts are making their voices heard. There has been tremendous concern."

Although their voices may not register as much with Congress as those of celebrities, such as opera singer Beverly Sills, some of the loudest protests about the proposed cuts are coming from the small, less-well-known and often minority-staffed arts groups. Experts within and without the NEA and NEH say these organizations will be able to survive federal funding cuts.

On the other hand, the proposed federal cutbacks may not be as devastating as manyassume, based on the gigantic increase in corporate support for the arts and humanities over the last decade. This upsurge shows no sign of any long-range downturn.

Aiding the call for cuts have been questions raised by the Reagan administration's transition team about the two agencies' giving practices. In addition, some congressmen -- even some who are the biggest supporters of the NEA and NEH -- have been critical of many of the two arts agencies' uses of taxpayer money.

A Heritage Foundation report, request by the transition team, begins by noting that the Carter administraton turned the NEA into a political football. Some of the NEA's more recent activities, the report said, "reveal a tendency to emphasize politically inspired social policies at the expense of the independence of the arts." The report called upon the agency to redirect grants "toward the highest purposes for which they were intended."

A few years earlier, a House of Representative investigative report hit almost as hard. It said: "The composition of task forces, committees, consultants, contractors, and panels represents a repetitive use of the same individuals . . . the inviduals represent a 'closed circle' of opinion constantly sought and offered to the NEA.

This investigative report probably would have resulted in cutbacks as well as consternation, had not US Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D) of Illinois, who requested the investigation, himself branded the report one-sided.

Congressman Yates, who will chair the hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies May 7, is an avid support of the NEA, but more recently has been sharply critical of some of its actions. In one particular instance, the NEA granted $7,500 grant to a writer, supposedly to afford him more time to write. Instead, the writer used the money to build a lakeside cabin.

One of the most controversial NEA grants was given Erica Jong who proceeded to write the best-seller "Fear of Flying" at taxpayers' expense. She had been awarded the money on the basis of her ability to write poetry.

Fortunately for taxpayers, even critics point out a plethora of prudent expenditures by the NEA. For example, from 1972-1976 alone, 29 writers awarded grants had their work chosen for "best of the year" anthologies, such as Best American Short Stories.

Dozens of critically acclaimed arts groups have been able to make most ends meet over the last several years thanks to small grants from the NEA. The Montana Repertory Company, for example, tours six Northwestern states for three months every year with quality theater productions. Its total grant for 1981 is

These and hundreds of other organizations, which have been awarded more than 400,000 separate grants totaling nearly $1 billion in the last 15 years by NEA, now can be counted on to help fight for the endowment.

Sources within the NEA themselves are confident that the endowment will be cut no more than 25 percent, despite some official rhetoric that the future of the arts in America depends on the NEA getting every penny former President Carter requested for it.

Mr. Biddle and others maintain that the NEA has acted as a major catalyst for private contributions to the arts.

W. McNeil Lowrey, former Ford Foundation arts division director, says that just as private philanthropy creates leverage on corporate and public resources, "so do federal, state, and municipal funds create leverage upon funds from the private sector."

But exactly how much influence the NEA has had on private sector giving to the arts, which increased twelvefold from $226 million in 1965 to $2.7 billion in 1979, is not k nown.

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