Proposals to Revamp Agency Include `Privatizing' It

NEA advocates and opponents say some change is inevitable

EVERY year, a debate over the National Endowment for the Arts turns ballerinas into lobbyists, and inspires conservatives to march around Capitol Hill carrying vulgar pictures of art they say was paid for by NEA grants.

Determined to end this annual sideshow, arts advocates and budget-conscious Republicans alike have floated plans that include everything from revamping the agency to abolishing it.

One of the most controversial ideas put forward by NEA supporters both inside and outside Congress is privatization. Advocates say that a privately financed, privately run NEA would build more self-sufficiency and give the organization greater discretion in how it spends its money.

The most prominent proposal is a bill sponsored by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut that would amend copyright law to generate money for the arts.

Under current copyright law, an artist's estate receives royalties from any performance of that artist's work until 50 years after his death. At that time, the material reverts to ``public domain,'' which means that a work can be presented without a fee.

Senator Dodd's bill, which has not yet been formally introduced, would lengthen the copyright period by 20 years, but donate all the royalties generated in that period to the NEA.

Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., contends that under this plan, theaters alone could generate $20 million for the endowment every year. In addition, this plan would reduce the influence of Congress on the arts: which, he says, favors multiculturalism and pork over artistic excellence.

Yet congressional sources say Dodd's proposal is a ``nonstarter.'' Such a law, they say, would be difficult to administer and would violate existing copyright laws and treaties. One Senate staff member adds that such a method does not constitute privatization, but rather a tax on arts groups.

``If Congress was interested in a tax to support the NEA,'' he says, ``they would be more likely to enact a general sales tax on things like books, records, and theater tickets.''

But arts supporters recognize the political reality of a Republican-controlled Congress eager to shrink the NEA budget, and nobody is ruling out radical reform. ``This year,'' says one endowment official, ``everything is on the table.''

Currently, funding recommendations are made by NEA-appointed ``peer panels'' that evaluate grant applications. Under one restructuring proposal, the NEA would eliminate these panels and begin making direct payments to artists based on the popularity of their work.

For instance, the NEA would pay novelists based on the number of times their books were checked out of public libraries. Similarly, composers would be paid every time their work was performed by an orchestra or played on the radio.

Critics of this proposal argue that it would reward art for its commercial appeal, rather than its intrinsic excellence. Supporters counter that it would not only encourage authorship, but it would transfer the role of national art critic from the federal government to the public.

But the majority of proposals to reconfigure the NEA involve harnessing some of the private contributions to the arts, which amount to $1.9 billion annually.

Some arts advocates in Congress say that the NEA should begin putting $45 million of its budget aside every year and seek private matching funds. While this would limit NEA spending in the short term, sources say, it could create a true endowment of more than $2 billion within a decade: a bulwark that would help stabilize the NEA budget without ``cutting the umbilical cord to the federal government,'' as one Senate staffer put it.

A host of critics say alternative public funding for the arts is not a permanent solution. While it would reduce NEA dependence on Congress, it would not address one of the fundamental criticisms of federal arts patronage: That the government has no business deciding which art is worthwhile.

But the idea of private funding wrinkles noses throughout the arts community. Mr. Brustein says that corporate funding would present more of a barrier to free expression than federal funding. Corporations, he says, avoid art that might be seen as controversial and often impose conditions on their patronage.

For their part, private organizations that make their own grants to arts groups are not saying whether they would help finance a private endowment. When asked if they would contribute to a fund for NEA operations, officials at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York refused to comment. Yet sources inside the foundation say that if the NEA was eliminated, it would throw a tremendous burden onto them.

The Rockefeller Foundation handles more than 8,000 applications for arts funding every year. Without the NEA, sources say, the number of applications would skyrocket, eating up more of the Rockefeller Foundation's time and money. The legwork the NEA does, they say, is far more valuable than the money it gives out.

Nevertheless, John O'Leary, policy analyst at the Reason Foundation (a Los Angeles-based think tank), argues that none of these solutions constitute true privatization. The NEA, he says, should be cut off completely. ``There are no halfway solutions,'' he says. ``If the NEA can't survive on its own, it shouldn't survive.''

Rep. Sidney Yates (D) of Ohio, a longtime champion of the endowment, says the privatization question sidesteps the real issue. ``The question is whether this is a crucial program,'' he says. ``I think it is, and it should be funded.''

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