Arts endowment: national pearl or artistic boondoggle?

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which has increasingly supported dance, theater, music, and the visual arts for the past 16 years, stands at yet another crossroads. The President's Task Force on the Arts and Humanities is expected to soon issue its final recommendations for the NEA -- recommendations that could affect not only the agency's 1982 budget, but also the future role of the federal government in American arts.

Yet the controversial NEA is almost as used to standing at crossroads as an actor is accustomed to walking on stage night after night. More than a few times, key congressmen threatened not only to have its budget sliced but the agency disbanded altogether. Now, however, it appears it's no longer a question of "if," but of "how much" and of "what role?"

President Reagan has pledged that the NEA will continue to act as a champion of the arts for the foreseeable future. And the entire US House of Representatives has voted to fund the NEA in fiscal year 1982 almost exactly what it got in fiscal 1981, or about $158 million. While the Senate Appropriations Committee has not been nearly as generous -- it voted $119.3 million -- most close observers expect the legislation that will emerge from the conference committee in the next several weeks to be in the middle, or about $ 135 million. In any case, anything close to this might be considered fairly remarkable, given the President's orginal intention of cutting the controversial arts agency budget in half.

The NEA's debut in 1965 was the product of several inauspicious forerunners. In 1916, a fine arts commission was set up by President William Howard Taft to advise Uncle Sam on the arts. But it was set up under President Harry Truman in 1951, but it too was short-lived. Then, in March 1963 President John F. Kennedy appointed August Hecksher "special consultant" on the arts, and for the first time, things started to happen. The President's Advisory Council on the Arts was formed, which was to evolve into today's presidentially appointed, 26-member National Council on the Arts.

This council is supposed to safeguard the federal arts grant process by reviewing the NEA's decisions, but critics say more often than not it has been merely a rubber stamp. President Reagan's task force is sure to have some recommendations about enhancing the duties fo this council. This would be in line with one of three key areas President Reagan has asked the council to focus on: increasing the role of nongovernmental, professional judgement in the grantmaking process. The other two areas being looked into are increasing support to state and local arts programs and the possibility of eventually coverting the NEA into a public corporation.

The council's lack of meaningful supervision is just one in a litany of concerns about the NEA, which has been branded everything from a "national treasure," fostering qualitative and quantitative growth in the arts, to an "artistic boondoggle." A Heritage Foundation report, one which the Reagan administration drew heavily on in its initial request to cut the NEA's budget in half, declared: "The NEA spends millions of dollars yearly to fund programs and policies which are unconcerned in any way with enduring artistic accomplishments; the best of these projects do no more than fossilize the popular culture of the past."

A Broadway theatrical producer gave me another view: "The NEA is a national treasure. Its contribution has been enormous in just a very few years. There are more talented actors, designers, directors, arts of all kinds today. It's incredible what has been done in 16 years."

Across the US, the NEA has awarded more than 400,000 grants totaling some $1 billion since its beginning in 1965. Many NEA backers think the seed money the agency has given out over the years has helped spur millions in additional private sector donations. Corporations and foundations, in selecting arts organizations to fund, often view an NEA grant as a "good housekeeping" sea of approval.

While the "quality" of many of the grants has always been a bone of contention, the likely budget cuts the NEA is now faced with have also raised controversy about the overall quantity of the grants. Perhaps one of the most infamous grants was given to Erica Jong, who wrote the bestseller "Fear of Flying" with it. But while the grant raised a storm of criticism in Congress, NEA supporters adroitly pointed out that the grant was given on the basis of Miss Jong's poetry, not what some have called a pornographic novel.

It did, however, have one positive result: NEA officials promised closer scrutiny of applications. Yet, several years later, the NEA gave a $7,500 literature fellowship to a poet, ostensibly to afford him more time to write. Instead he built a log cabin. There are ongoing questions, too, about the appropriateness of some experimental theater grants.

Yet some argue that an "overwhelming" proportion of NEA grants have gone for deserving projects. For example, from 1972 to 1976, 29 writers awarded fellowships had their work chosen for "best of the year" anthologies, such as Best American Short Stories.

While it is clear that budget cuts will mean fewer grants, it is by no means clear whether this will be good or bad for the arts in the long run. Ironically , some of the endowment's strongest supporters over the years say the cuts may have a silver lining -- forcing new and old arts organizations to make greater demands on their own creativity and market-ability. Twyla Tharp, artistic director of the Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation, a highly acclaimed modern dance group, says arts groups with real talent and dedication should be able to prove themselves in the marketplace, and if they can't they may well not be worth saving with federal or other subsidies.

Agreeing heartily that federal cuts can spur greater achievements is Edward Strauss Jr., president of the Business Committee for the Arts Inc., who points out the NEA supplies only a small portion of the support arts groups receive, anyway. His group is coaxing businesses to give more to the arts. NEA chairman Livingston Biddle, who is expected to be replaced Nov. 4 when his term is up, told this reporter that the NEA personified is "a vigoruos young person who is eager to explore new horizons, questing in spirit, sensitive, imaginative . . . and accountable, fully accountanle." Many critics argue it has not been fully accountable. But with all the attention it is getting, it may be more so in the future.

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