NEA FUNDING GETS AIRING AT AWARDS SHOW

With such prominent and vociferous arts supporters as Jane Alexander and Ismail Merchant present, the hot topic at a prestigious award ceremony Tuesday was the precarious state of federal funding for the arts.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) chairwoman and the producer of Oscar-winning films were both on a panel at the ceremony for the Montblanc awards, given annually to important patrons of the arts by the Paris-based Montblanc Foundation.

This year's winners were Ms. Alexander; Gian Carlo Menotti, head of the Spoleto Festival; and Ikuo Hirayama, dean of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.

In an interview before receiving her award, Alexander said she believes that continued lobbying could still sway critics in Congress who question government subsidies for the arts. ``We need to educate these people - they have to understand that this is a stimulant to the economy....''

Many members of Congress say that in an era of diminishing government, the arts must accept some of the cutbacks.

The debate has moved some arts supporters to explore alternative sources of funding.

Lord Douro, chairman of the Montblanc Foundation, suggested that a national lottery might be a viable way to support the arts - as it is in his native Britain.

Alexander, who oversees the NEA's $167 million annual budget, seemed skeptical. ``What happens is that [lotteries] work for a little while, and then the legislatures decide that the monies should switch to other sources.... We need constant commitment....''

Mr. Merchant, producer of such respected movies as ``A Room With a View'' and ``Remains of the Day,'' proposed a more radical measure: To demonstrate culture's importance in American life, every theater, concert hall, TV station, and museum nationwide should strike for a day, he said. The strike could ``start with closing down for one night ... a token blackout.''

``It sounds like a great idea,'' said Schuyler Chapin, New York City Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. ``If all of a sudden - bang! no orchestra played, no theater opened, no movie was on, no museum was open, you might find this was a bit of a shock.''

Some said the idea wouldn't work. ``As an old baseball player, I don't know about strikes these days,'' mused author George Plimpton.

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