Martha Graham's bid for congressional funds raises curtain on arts controversy. Was it really necessary to circumvent NEA's peer review process? critics ask

Fans of dancer Martha Graham may wonder whether even she could choreograph the intricate bureaucratic dance now taking place in Washington over a funding proposal to preserve her artistic legacy. The legendary Miss Graham and her supporters, making a controversial attempt to fund her dance legacy through Congress, are taking a soaring leap over the traditional arts funding arm, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Endowment chairman Frank Hodsoll says he is concerned that it could create anarchy in arts funding, if it succeeds.

Already the Senate Appropriations Committee, with Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona in the lead, has approved an unprecedented line-item appropriation in the Interior appropriatons bill for the coming year for $4.1 million to preserve the Graham dance heritage. The approval was given on the grounds that, as her supporters suggest, the work of the 93-year-old queen mother of American dance is a ``national treasure,'' akin to Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, something that must be preserved by recording her works on film and be providing more funding for her school.

The proposed grant, scaled down from an original request of $7 million, is about to go before a House-Senate conference committee. There the views of one man, Sidney Yates (D) of Illinois, the arts czar who is House Interior Committee chairman, could be a determining factor.

Representative Yates, who has long been a forceful advocate for the arts, has a reputation for muscling through substantially more money for the arts endowment than the budget-cutting Reagan administration asks each year. Up till now, Mr. Yates has had a discreet ``no comment'' for the press on the Graham funding issue. However, he now tells the Monitor, ``I consider this [grant] in the nature of political interference, but I haven't made up my mind [about how to vote on it]. What I'm saying is that Congress has never done it, and if it did, it would be the first time. We have studiously and deliberately taken the position that not a single arts organization - not any arts organization - gets from Congress a grant like the one designated for a particular project, like a water project.''

Yates says he would prefer not to do it, but indicates that if approval of the Graham funding interferes with negotiating the entire interior bill, this will raise further questions. ``We [in Congress] have proudly said that there will be no political interference with designated funding by the Arts or Humanities [Endowments],'' Yates continues. ``That's become our rule. But at the same time, Martha Graham is one who has made a real contribution to the art of dance, in my opinion, and is recognized worldwide.''

She is certainly recognized in Congress, where she has lobbied dramatically at hearings, bringing with her such supporters from the dance field as Mikhail Baryshnikov and rallying such supporters as Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, and Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.

Ron Protas, general director of the Martha Graham Dance Company and its associate artistic director, says the $4.1 million grant ``means the preservation of Martha's technique and ballets, not just for the present but for future generations. It would enable us to ... raise the amount needed to do all the projects we had in mind: filming, preservation, renovation.''

If passed, it would be a one-for-one matching grant requiring an additional $4.1 million in private funding. The total would include $3 million for filming a record of her works, $2.5 million for renovation of cramped quarters, and the remaining money for the Martha Graham Dance Company's school, which includes 500 students from 41 countries.

As dance critic Marcia B. Siegel, who writes frequently for this newspaper, points out, dance is unique among the arts in terms of preservation: ``In dance there is no artifact, no object,'' as there is with a painter like Mark Rothko and the past controversy over the legacy of his art. ``But in dance, there is nothing to be struggled over. The repertory exists in the bodies of the dancers and the memories of those who teach them. Film is needed to interpret it to other dancers.'' She also points out that many dance companies, among them Baryshnikov's American Ballet Theater and Rudolph Nureyev's Paris Opera Ballet, would like to have Graham works in their repertoires.

Among the concerns of those who oppose the grant are fears that the Graham funding by Congress could set a precedent that would throw all federal arts funding into chaos. ``I think it could certainly result in [arts] anarchy, in a sense, if it succeeds,'' says NEA's Mr. Hodsoll. ``It is almost a certainty that others will come in seeking similar line items in subsequent years.''

Could it weaken or even possibly dissolve the NEA, if that happens? ``Absolutely,'' says Hodsoll. ``The endowment for 22 years has never had a line item as part of its operation. ... The endowment is uniquely based on peer panel review, and to create an exception to that undermines the basis on which it operates.'' He calls the action ``unprecedented.'' Special Washington-area appropriations - for the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the Wolf Trap performing-arts center - which Graham supporters cite, have not been funded through Congress, he maintains.

Hodsoll adds, ``Martha Graham is absolutely a national treasure. Everyone agrees she's the greatest dance artist there is.'' But he feels so strongly about that congressional end run around his agency that he polled the 26 members of the National Council on the Arts, which advises the NEA. The council, which includes such disparate members as painter Helen Frankenthaler, novelist Allen Drury, and actress Celeste Holm, OK'd a formal resolution urging Congress not to adopt the Senate provision. This resolution reads, in part, ``This line item for a specific institution would establish a dangerous precedent, a precedent which goes against the long and widely respected tradition of federal support in the arts through a competitive peer review process. ... It would thus open the door to a long line of potential abuses.''

The NEA and the Graham camp differ bitterly over whether the endowment has treated their grant requests fairly, but it is clear that the Graham forces did not request $7 million from the NEA for preservation of the dance legacy or supply a plan for it, as they did with the Senate.

``From our experience over the last five years with the endowment, we knew that it would not be received properly,'' says Richard Burke, president of the board of trustees of the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance. In 1983 the NEA rejected the Graham company's request for a $1 million challenge grant to ensure its legacy by videotaping its ballets and renovating the center. In 1984 the NEA gave Graham a $250,000 one-for-one matching grant for the filming. The NEA has also given the company operating support each year, $327,000 last year.

Mr. Burke, who served for 11 years as chief aide to Senator Kennedy, is author of the funding plan. ``Considering the gravity of the situation - an elderly woman who's a national treasure and much of her work is not preserved - it's a way to get some quick action,'' Burke says. He adds that Hodsoll ``has not been helpful at all. The man who's supposed to be saving arts treasures is trying to help destroy one.''

Hodsoll says he hasn't any documentation from the Graham spokesmen that would lead him ``to be assured that, with a $4 million grant, the company would indeed be able to perpetuate Martha Graham's vision and standards.''

Burke asserts that ``when Yates asked for comment from Hodsoll, the latter said, `These people are basically going to take the money and run. They don't have a plan.''' Burke says they do, that Miss Graham sent Hodsoll a letter saying she'd show the plan to him if he wished. But Hodsoll says he saw the ``plan'' through other channels.

Former NEA chairman Livingston Biddle joins with those who oppose the plan. He protests that such funding ``would fragment the arts.''

He adds, ``There must be unity within the arts. If the separate interests begin pleading their own case, the whole fabric unravels.'' He suggests that the situation be handled as it was under his chairmanship: ``I urged everybody to battle if they wished with the endowment budget each year as much as they wanted to, but in public said they should all work together....''

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