Supporting the Arts

Actress Jane Alexander, who announced this month that she would be stepping down as head of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), recently asked, "... will the federal government continue to be a partner in preserving the cultural heritage of this nation - will it continue to invest in the creative potential of its citizens and future generations?"

For the time being at least, it will, as it - we - should. Ms. Alexander and others fought hard and ultimately successfully to keep the NEA from being dismantled in 1998. Congress now has promised $98 million for the year that began Oct. 1, down from a peak of $176 million in 1992.

However important this federal support is, other factors are contributing to the "marginalization of the arts," a new NEA report finds. Corporate and individual support is down, the study says. Arts education in the schools has been pushed aside. Artists and art groups too often are "elitist, racially segregated, class-based, and isolated." And many Americans don't see the relevance of art in their lives.

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This rather gloomy assessment doesn't mean the US is destined to become a cultural wasteland. Private giving to the arts has tripled since 1965, though it hasn't kept pace with the number of new nonprofit arts groups and has begun to decline.

Some blighted cities and towns have seen turnarounds start from new arts centers. And the NEA report points to the success of many local arts agencies around the country - agencies that have forged close ties to their communities.

Such ties are crucial. They're a key to persuading people that the arts are, indeed, relevant. For their own survival, theater groups, dance companies, etc., have to reach out to a wider segment of the public, no longer just the older, wealthier audiences typically associated with the arts. The NEA study makes that clear.

Music festivals, photography exhibits, and ballet performances enrich our lives and our communities. Congress, to a limited degree, has given its support. Now individual artists and arts institutions will have to persuade the rest of us - all of us, not just a privileged few - to do the same.

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