It is 15 years ago today that President Johnson signed the law to begin in the United States the kind of governmental support of the arts long established elsewhere. Still lagging on a per capita basis (less than a dollar a year), the federal outlays have risen dramatically over the original penny a person in 1965 . With each dollar generating three or four more from other sources, the results have been richly evident in the performing, visual, and literary arts -- and to millions of television viewers probably unaware of the role of the National Endowment for the Arts in bringing them the talents on display at New York's Lincoln Center and other cultural shrines.
Now, as the arts endowment and its less publicized partner, the National Endowment for the Humanities, begin a new decade, the cry is for "access" as well as "excellence." The challenge is to prevent any such spreading of arts and scholarship from diluting the results. There is also a challenge in the legitimate political effort to justify the arts as spurring the economy -- hotels, restaurants, transportation, jobs. It is not to lose sight of the genuine bottom-line reason for Washington support of the arts: to provide a catalyst for releasing a great nation's talents and enhancing the lives of its citizens.