Boston — When Frank Hodsoll first got the idea he would like to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, ``Everybody thought I was crazy,'' he says. After all, he was a deputy to the White House chief of staff, highly regarded by President Reagan, close to where the action was -- and now he was asking for a job not only where the action wasn't, in the opinion of many friends, but where he would be well nigh invisible.
``People at the White House and other places felt I was messing up my career,'' Mr. Hodsoll recalled as we chatted at the Museum of Fine Arts while he was here to give a talk. ``One senator said, `You know Hodsoll, you're going to be fine for California and New York: You're an elitist, in your pin-stripe suits and your fancy Ivy League education. You know a little about the arts and you go to all of these things. But they're all located in one place -- you don't know a thing about the rest of the count ry and you're going to be terrible there.'
``I was a little taken back,'' concedes ex-lawyer Hodsoll -- a large man with a broad and ready grin -- in a characteristic understatement.
``The only reason I have this job is because I asked for it and the White House wanted to humor me. Since I had no experience in the arts at all, I said to both Jim Baker and others, `Let me go up. If there is any problem on this I will drop it. I'm outside of my interest. This is a flier for me. It's a flier for everybody, and we'll see what happens.''
What happened is that Hodsoll has presided over a prickly period of budget battles with elegance, cordiality, and a businesslike grasp of the arts scene which has surprised more than one lifelong worker in the field.
Housed in Washington's handsomely restored Old Post Office Building, the endowment (NEA) -- which will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a ``national arts week'' Sept. 23-29 -- was created by Congress in 1965 as an independent federal agency to support American arts. This fiscal year it's giving about $150 million to a wide range of groups and artists, from the Metropolitan Opera to struggling painters.
These dollars are a boon to individual recipients, but the total amount is a pittance, compared with most federal programs, and allocating NEA money tends to be a no-win process that leaves disgruntled factions in its wake. So inevitably, Hodsoll has galvanized an opposition -- it goes with the territory. The problem is aggravated by what some claim is his role in bringing the Reagan administration's budget ax to an already underfunded operation.
Then why on earth did he want the job?
``I'm interested in the arts or I wouldn't have asked for it,'' he says. ``I have to be frank with you. It was just personal. I think there was an assumption that I wasn't going to mess up too badly even if I didn't know that much about the area. I didn't know much about nuclear nonproliferation when I started, either, so you learn these things as you go.''
But his lack of background, he discovered, also had a minus side: ``I didn't know anybody. I didn't know who to listen to. It took me at least a year and a half before I felt comfortable with [those] whom I could rely [on] for judgments on different matters.''
The plus side is that ``you're beholden to nobody and you have quite an open mind.''
That freedom from strings includes the White House, Hodsoll maintains. ``This is a tribute to one of my deals, when I left the White House, of absolutely no political pressure. Absolutely zero. Not even a phone call.''
Which means, of course, that the way the NEA works is largely due to Frank Hodsoll. There is a National Council on the Arts that advises the endowment, and the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities helps steer policy -- but the management of the agency itself is in Hodsoll's hands. What, then, is his personal philosophy of arts support? How does a Reagan political appointee feel about spending tax dollars on the arts -- and how does he think they should be spent?
``Basically the arts are an essential component of any society,'' Hodsoll states, ``and of the strength and health of that society -- and therefore an important aspect of what government should be concerned about.''
Then what should the government's role be?
``It ought to be supportive of other people doing things rather than undertaking -- how shall I say it? -- the primary support of the arts or the production of the arts themselves. You need to get very clear about goals. You look at the end result. Not at our bureaucratic processes, not at what we do, but at what is it out there that you want to change.''
What would he like to change?
``First, you want to encourage more artistic excellence and a climate within which the unpredictable nature of artistic excellence can spring up.
``And, secondly, you want to reach more audiences -- that is, all American people. Those are two basic missions.''
How does the NEA decide between need and excellence, I asked, in choosing where to bestow its money?
``It's a tough question. There are those who would say, `Frank, why do you give such a big grant to the Metropolitan Opera? Why do you give such a big grant to the Boston Symphony or the Museum of Fine Arts? -- where we're sitting.' And my response to that is yes, those institutions have greater access, but they also have a lot more money to raise and they need help, too.''
Yet Hodsoll and the NEA have also been striving to encourage non-mainstream groups, including experimental ones. ``We fund people like the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Dance Theater Workshop,'' he points out, ``to try and take those kinds of expressions out and around the country. Haven't been that successful here. We've got to do more work. Our strategy needs to be worked on some more.''
Meanwhile, Hodsoll's home life includes an artistic wife who once ran an art gallery in Chicago, a son entering Colby College in the fall, and a daughter at the University of Virginia.
In the evening he is a regular at arts events of many kinds, but he admits ``I get `cultured out.' I just can't go to another thing and I sort of stop for a few days.''
What makes him the busiest -- the part of his job he calls the hardest -- is ``to keep fresh air flowing throughout the system at all times.'' In plunging into untraditional fields, he finds that ``There is a possessiveness that builds up -- a feeling that you know that this particular artistic expression is the mode of the future, when in fact it no longer is.''
The antidote: ``To make sure that your panels are truly reflecting the new, opposed to what I like to call an `academy of the once-new.'
``I'm only interested in the National Endowment for the Arts to the extent that we are measurably helping the culture of this country,'' he says, reflecting on the NEA's role as it rounds out its first 20 years. ``The arts are essential. We just help. And if we ever lose sight of that as an agency, we're off on the wrong track.''