America's man for the arts

Frank Hodsoll is a big, amiable man with a big, difficult job. It is to put the best possible face on Washington's shrinking budget for the arts. To demonstrate that the proposed 30 percent slash in funding for 1983 would mean no retreat from federal commitment to the arts as a great national resource. To show, indeed, that government can continue--and even increase--the extraction of arts funds from private sources while setting a contrary example of pullback itself.

Mr. Hodsoll can cite some progress after half a year as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. At a Massachusetts Institute of Technology press conference the other day he sounded like someone with the enthusiasm and conviction to achieve more. As the first chairman to have been a career government official, most recently as deputy assistant to the President, he has an opportunity to prove how the arts can benefit from the administrative skills their adherents so often lack.

But in addition to Mr. Hodsoll's efforts the arts will need firm congressional and public support or he could wind up doing what he says he won't do: preside over the decline of the arts in America.

Congress could repeat what it wisely did the year before and restore at least part of the administration's budget cuts. This might address the fears of some fine and promising small organizations more crucially dependent on federal funds than are the large blue-chip museums and performing companies.

But, as Mr. Hodsoll notes, the arts can hardly claim immunity from cuts when things like food stamps are also on the chopping block. At any rate, even at full funding the endowment provides only a patch on per capita government spending for the arts in some other countries; it has never reached as much as 5 percent of overall US support of the arts.

Here is where Mr. Hodsoll wears his best-face-on-things hat. Without using the term tax expenditures, he suggests that ''government support'' for the arts includes the tax deductions for private giving. In 1981 these totaled $3.35 billion, meaning per capita government support comparing favorably with Western European countries.

Why then have an arts endowment at all? The US got along without one for almost two centuries. Won't genuine talent rise with or without federal handouts? Won't the arts flourish as well through the mechanism of the marketplace and the private patronage of corporations, foundations, and individuals?

This is where the representative of an antigovernment administration makes a case for the government's role that could hardly be improved upon. It ought to make Mr. Hodsoll a persuasive missionary both inside the government and before those business groups he is visiting to stir arts support through ''peer pressure.''

Here are the main reasons he gives for saying he would want to start a National Endowment for the Arts if the US did not have one already:

* To recognize the importance of the arts with prestige and advocacy at the highest level.

* To ensure support--as in the sciences--for the new and experimental ventures that may be too risky to elicit sufficient private investment; to foster ''a climate for the unpredictable to happen.''

* To provide some cushion for the nation's ''most excellent'' artistic institutions so that they do not stultify.

* To encourage the ''kaleidoscope'' of American culture with support for folk arts, for example

* To increase access to the arts.

It's a prologue to be applauded. The rest of the Hodsoll show will have an interested audience.

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