Reagan's new Arts Endowment chief

A paradox named Frank may be 1982's big surprise for America's cultural establishment. Francis (Frank) S. M. Hodsoll was confirmed on Nov. 10 as the fourth chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and in light of his close ties to the White House he is therefore the barometer of the Reagan administration's real attitude toward the arts. But he has been greeted just a bit guardedly by the arts community because of his seeming lack of arts credentials and because President Reagan's tight-budget policies seem to indicate a hard-nose attitude toward any kind of government funding.

But Mr. Hodsoll, in one of his first major newspaper interviews, makes it very clear that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, he has not become chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts to preside over the liquidation of the arts in America.

''Not as long as we have this President and not as long as I am here,'' he says, just a bit shyly, hesitant to seem too pompous or presumptuous.

We meet in the law library of the New York City offices of the Reader's Digest, where he has been visiting Barnabas McHenry, a Digest executive as well as vice-chairman of the Presential Task Force on the Arts and Humanities.

Mr. Hodsoll is a big man wearing a loose-fitting suit that seems to have been acquired when he was heavier. He willingly, perhaps even eagerly, interrupts his solitary yogurt luncheon to talk about his still-in-the-formation-stage plans for the National Endowment for the Arts.

For those among us - and there are many - who are a bit confused as to what function the endowment performs, let me hasten to explain that, according to official statements ''the National Endowment for the Arts is an independent federal agency, created by the Congress in 1965 to encourage and assist the nation's cultural progress. The goal of the endowment is the fostering of professional excellence of the arts in America . . . ''

The arts endowment is advised by a National Council on the Arts, a body appointed by the president and composed of the chairman of the endowment and 26 distinguished citizens who are widely recognized either as artists or for their expertise in the arts.

The original budget during the first year of the Endowment was $2.5 million, which grew to a 1981 budget of $158.56 million. The Reagan administration budget for 1982 allocated $88 million, but Congress has now passed a surprisingly large 1983?

''In terms of fiscal 1983, which we'll be proposing in January, 1982,'' says Mr. Hodsoll, ''I'm largely going to work on it a political realism basis in terms of what the administration ends up accepting for 1982 and then coming up with something that is politically realistic for 1983.''

Is it legal for the chairman to lobby for his own budget ideas?

''It is legal for me to lobby for my own budget - the 1983 budget. But it is not proper for me to argue for my own budget after the administration has made a decision. At that point I argue for the budget that the administration has given.''

As a loyal Reagan man, how does Hodsoll expect the appropriations to go - and why?

''The arts endowment discretionary budget grew at a tremendous rate, particularly during the Nixon-Ford years. I think those facts will be taken into consideration by the OMB (Office of Management and Budget), along with the fact that we have a lot of other discretionary programs dealing with things like food stamps. Their importance may be compared with the endowment importance. . . .

''I have been particularly struck that smaller institutions claim that government funding is important to them, but that it is less the actual funding money than the stamp of approval conferred by the fact of endowment funding.''

Does Mr. Hodsoll feel that the Reagans actually have a soft spot for the arts , as they so often proclaim?

His gentle eyes become very steely. ''Yes, they do. Certainly.''I wouldn't have taken this job if I thought that dismantling the endowment was in the cards. I've spoken with the President about it. I've spoken with the First Lady about it. And there is no question of their interest in the arts. I think it is evidenced by their creation of a special task force, by their receipt of that task force's report at a special lunch. That hasn't happened for any other program. They have appointed an ambassador-at-large for the arts and they have inaugurated a series of concerts at the White House.''Some might say that one of the most accurate ways to gauge the real feeling for the arts of any individual is to study his own arts preferences. Which of the arts is Mr. Hodsoll's favorite?''I'm a dilettante. I like almost everything. I really don't have a particular favorite. I have paintings and sculptures at home, I go to the theater and concerts and opera as much as I can. I suppose I am an average dilettante, but I probably work harder at it than a lot of people.''What kind of paintings and sculpture does he collect?''It's almost all abstract or nearly abstract - although I realize there is a school of realistic painting which interests me, too. My wife, Mimi, used to run an art gallery in Chicago so she is really the collector in the family. She is off gallery hopping right now.''But we do have a number of pieces by Sam Benjamin and a number of what used to be called the Chicago Monster School of abstract paintings. We have other things, too. Antique furniture and Korean porcelain. A potpourri of things.''Mr. Hodsoll is charmingly defensive about the limited size of his collection. But as a long-time, comparatively low-level civil servant, there has not been a great deal of money to build up private art collections.He is quite proud of the fact that ''I took a year off from foreign service and my wife and kids got shovels and we built two houses, one to sell so that we could afford to live in the one we live in. It's quite unusual, on a hillside. We used a terrific young architect but we actually built it ourselves. It was a lot of fun.''The chairman believes that, whatever the endowment has available for funding the arts, this is the time when more funding should be coming from the private sector - corporations, foundations, individuals.''In the next year or so I would like to put together some seminars with some of the best minds in the country to review the ingredients which existed in other periods of history which are now recognized as great artistically. What kinds of things were present at the time of Pericles of Athens? Or in Renaissance Italy? They were having difficulty with their trade routes and so on, yet there was a flowering of art. I think it would be interesting to find out why.''Let's get down to the real nitty-gritty. Why was Francis Hodsoll chosen to head the National Endowment for the Arts?Mr. Hodsoll seems just a bit wary.'' Well,'' he starts a bit haltingly,''I wasn't really chosen in the normal sense. I was in the office when it was decided to create a task force to look into what the federal government should be doing in the arts and humanities, and Jim Baker assigned me to help out. In the course of helping, I became more and more interested. And, then, at one point, since I knew that the chairmanship of the arts endowment was coming up, I threw my hat in the ring and eventually got the job. I have a great interest in the arts. Going far back enough I even have had a quasi-involvement in college and what not. I don't have long experience in arts administration or the arts world other than an interest. But what I think I do bring to this job is quite a bit of federal experience in a wide variety of agencies, a wide variety of committees on the Hill. And I think I am a pretty good manager.''But, perhaps most important, I see an important federal role in both advocating higher degrees of excellence in the arts as well as helping to support them. This seemed to be the best place to put my beliefs into action.''So, Hodsoll, a self-designated dilettante in the arts, has made it clear where he stands - for growth, development, broadening, to be accomplished with adequate although minimal federal funding.If he is not actually a member of the inner circle arts establishment, he is looking warily, longingly toward that group for approval. Just as they are looking warily, but hopefully, toward him.

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