WASHINGTON — AS supporters and critics alike wait for President Bush to nominate a new chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), members of Congress are reinforcing battle lines over the agency's future.
Ever since Patrick Buchanan took a Georgia campaign slam at the NEA, it has been on the endangered-species list. The conservative presidential candidate derided the NEA as "the upholstered playpen of ... the Eastern liberal establishment," claimed it used taxpayers' dollars "for blasphemous and pornographic art," and asked for the 'scalp' " of NEA chairman John Frohnmayer. President Bush responded by firing Mr. Frohnmayer the next day.
It sent a political message that both the arts community and its critics read loud and clear.
The NEA has been most vulnerable to its critics in years when its reauthorization is up for renewal in Congress or in an election year when bashing it makes political points with conservatives and even helps campaign fund raising. This presidential campaign year Buchanan has threatened the president's hold on the conservative wing of his party with his NEA attacks.
Favorite targets of its critics have been controversial grants for homo-erotic photos by Robert Mapplethorpe; or the Andres Seranno photo of a crucifix immersed in his own body fluids.
But as questionable as these grants are, they represent a fraction of 1 percent of the 90,000 grants the NEA has given in the last 26 years, say its defenders.
"We just have to face the hostility of those who have been hostile all along," says Rep. Sidney Yates (D) of Illinois.
Is there a new factor this year? "Yes, in terms of Buchanan, he has intensified the atmosphere around the NEA. And the White House has responded as Buchanan wants. It's unfortunate...," says Representative Yates.
Rep. William Dannemeyer (R) of California, a longtime foe of the NEA, says, when asked if the NEA's life is at risk this year, "I would hope so ... At a time when we're adding to a $480 billion national debt, to think that we can afford to spend $173 million on the NEA is a luxury that, in my judgment, we can no longer afford. The arts contribute a great deal to our society, and private sources fund them to a great extent, and that's the way it ought to be."
Another congressional power involved in the fate of the NEA is Rep. Pat Williams (D) of Montana, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the agency. "If the NEA's fate is going to be determined by the political winds, then the NEA is in very deep water indeed. The president's response to a single political ad [Buchanan's ad against the film "Tongues Untied," on a homosexual theme, partly funded by NEA and appearing on some PBS stations] was to fire John Frohnmayer," he says.
"I had said two years ago when Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and the Rev. Pat Robertson launched their attacks that if the genie of censorship escaped from the bottle, it would be the beginning of the end of the NEA because its strongest supporters would abandon it rather than allow it to be used as an agent of restriction over legitimate art...," says Mr. Williams.
Williams added that the next 20 months, with this year's appropriations hearings and next year's reauthorization hearings, will be the toughest in the agency's quarter-century history.
On the question of who's going to succeed Frohnmayer when he leaves May 1, speculation has the agency merging with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Unlike the NEA, the NEH has kept a low profile in terms of controversy, funding such major successes as Ken Burns's prize-winning "Civil War" series for PBS.
Yates says of the meld, "As of now, I don't see any advantage in that. It's just possible to have an effort by the White House to have someone like [NEH chairwoman] Lynn Cheney run both. She's done well in the humanities, a very conservative person [she is the wife of Defense Secretary Richard Cheney] for the political needs of the White House today."
But several sources for this story said they doubted the president would want to risk a fierce and perhaps protracted Senate battle over a new nomination for NEA chairman in an election year. Ann-Imelda Radice, former United States Information Agency aide who is described as very conservative by both friends and foes of the NEA, may be in line to do the job for the remainder of the year. A one-year appointment would not require senate confirmation.