WASHINGTON — THE theater people are watching the velvet curtain go up; the dance lobby is rising en pointe; the opera buffs, humming in anticipation; the artists, stretching their canvas. The entire arts world impatiently waits to see what direction the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) will take under the Bush administration. The sudden resignation of the Reagan administration's eight-year NEA chairman, Frank Hodsoll, to take a top-level job in the Office of Management and Budget has startled the arts world. His term was to expire in November. So it was a surprise that a public list of four leading candidates from administration sources emerged simultaneously with the Hodsoll resignation Feb. 15. Among the candidates, whose views are as different as ``Cats'' and ``Hamlet'':
Schuyler Chapin, former dean of the Columbia University School of the Arts and a former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.
Barnabas McHenry, chairman of the Empire State Plaza Art Commission and co-vice chairman of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
Milton Rhodes, president of the American Council for the Arts.
Lois Burke Shepard, director of the Institute for Museum Services, who spoke on the arts while campaigning for George Bush.
The consensus of arts experts interviewed by the Monitor is that the new chairman should be an ardent advocate for the arts, one with a depth of experience either as an artist or as an arts organization expert, preferably with as wide a range as possible. Their profile of an ideal arts czar or czarina includes a national reputation in the field and the ability to negotiate in Washington.
At this writing, Hodsoll has named Hugh Southern, NEA deputy chairman for programs, as acting chairman until the administration appoints his successor.
Anne Murphy, executive director of the American Arts Alliance, which has given the White House a list of prerequisites for the NEA chairmanship, says, ``Our primary concern is involvement with the arts, and that the chairman - he or she - have a passionate commitment to the arts and an understanding of the vital contribution the arts make to development in our society and culture....''
Former NEA chairman Livingston Biddle suggests: ``It's absolutely essential that whoever is appointed have the most prestigious, dedicated background in the arts possible ..., someone who has to be so dedicated to the arts that that transcends a limited partisan outlook, someone who can speak up ... in a new administration and not ... follow the party line.''
Kennedy Center founder Roger Stevens, the first NEA chief, says, ``The ideal chairman is someone vitally interested in the arts. ... Myself, I would like to see ... someone who could cut through the red tape so it would not take two years to get a grant out.'' Stevens remembers once applying for a Kennedy Center grant ``with a show that opened and closed after a fairly good run, before they [the NEA] came in'' with the funds.
STEVENS, as a renowned theatrical producer, has an insider's view of the arts chairmanship: ``The trouble in operating in the arts is that every business decision is an artistic decision, and every artistic decision is a business decision. Not many people around the country can do it.'' Stevens puts in a plug for Barnabas McHenry: ``Literally every night of the week, Barney goes to a show, sees everything - theater, ballet, opera - certainly shows his interest in participating in the arts. ... Schuyler Chapin would fill the job perfectly well, too; it's just that he's better known than Barney.''
Mr. McHenry ticks off a list of other people he thinks would be excellent NEA chairmen: Beverly Sills, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Lincoln Kirstein, Tony Randall, Stevens, or artists Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and James Rosenquist. ``It's time for some excitement at the NEA,'' he says. Also, ``We have to have somebody who can work with Yates,'' referring to Rep. Sidney Yates (D) of Illinois, of the House Appropriations Committee, who protected the NEA from Reagan budget cuts. ``You have to have someone who can work with government - that's where the money comes from - and enthuse the executive branch.''
Some arts experts think the leading candidate is Schuyler Chapin, who was reached by phone while vacationing on the tropical French island of St. Barth'elemy. Mr. Chapin says, ``I have spent all my life in the arts and never wanted to do anything else. His NEA goal: ``to act prouder and taller about our artistic heritage.'' He'd like to persuade the executive branch ``to help increase the arts budget'' and recommends tax adjustments that would encourage more financial support from the private sector. ``And I think that, in addition to money, the endowment has to be the most avid and strong solicitor on behalf of the arts in the entire country.'' He says that ``the arts generally do not occupy a very high place on the national agenda.'' Chapin adds that ``in the last several years, I have done everything from visual arts to literature to theater to the cinema to opera to the symphony. There is no area that I feel uncomfortable about.''
Lois Burke Shepard, reached while vacationing in Jamaica, says, ``I think the job of NEA chairman is an extremely important job, to administer extremely crucial grant programs, and also to show the administration's concern for the arts and to be very visible.'' She adds, ``I would love to have the opportunity to talk to the President and the First Lady about what they want to do in the next four years.'' Since the First Lady is not generally consulted about the NEA chairmanship, Mrs. Shepard noted her interest in what Mrs. Bush wanted in the arts. Mrs. Shepard said, ``It's extremely important that the arts as a whole be made a serious part of the fabric of our society'' but refused to comment on whether an increase in funding for the NEA was needed. She added she did not see this as a crisis time in the arts.
On the subject of her lack of a specific arts background, Mrs. Shepard noted that, when she became director of the Institute for Museum Services, ``I said I did not have a museum background, but that I was not being asked to run a museum; I was being asked to run a federal agency. I am an administrator, and I think the job [at NEA] is an administrative job....'' She added, ``I have a life-long interest in the arts ... opera, all kinds of art, jazz. ... My husband was a professional diplomat, and I became internationally involved in representing the US ... in artistic endeavors ... in Singapore, Budapest, Athens. I felt it was a crucial part of the face of the US.''
Although Milton Rhodes, of the American Council for the Arts, was out of town and unavailable for comment, he had left a statement with an ACA spokesman: ``I have a great job now, at the American Council for the Arts, which puts me in the middle of the key issues in the arts field and takes me to states and communities across the country. I have spent my whole adult life in the trenches of the arts movement. The chairmanship of the NEA is the top job. Yes, I'm interested.''