IN any democracy, politicians want to help the home folks. So if arts grants are available, they find it hard to resist the temptation to get band uniforms for a constituency or support for some worthy, if undistinguished, amateur or semi-professional community theater group in their district. If they do this, they are supporting constituents, but not the arts.
That's why Roger Stevens was particularly careful when he set up the National Endowment for the Arts during the Kennedy administration - to keep it as free as possible from political interference.
Government subsidy for the arts in the United States really began with the NEA's establishment. There had been some previous de facto support of artists through the Work Projects Administration in the '30s and through such arrangements as Theodore Roosevelt's giving the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson a ``no show'' customs job in the '20s.
Mr. Stevens placed the emphasis on professionalism and structured a panel system to buffer the agency from political pressure. The professional emphasis effectively established guidelines that funded organizations of quality which had been in existence for three or more years; it also set standards of excellence for aspiring groups.
To keep an effective public and private sector mix, NEA mandated that it would never fund more than 50 percent of any budget (and usually much less). Moreover, each grantee would be reviewed annually; this meant that there would not be multi-year funding.
These ground rules ensured that federal funding was a limited partner in an artistic venture. They guaranteed that artistic excellence would be the criterion for funding, not political influence or representing the ``cause du jour.''
Early on - aided by government grants - Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival launched free Shakespeare in Central Park, to public delight and astonishment.
In my own case we took an old farm, the buildings of which were to be burned down as an exercise for the local fire department. We used them to establish a memorial to Eugene O'Neill, the O'Neill Theater Center.
Our National Playwrights Conference has premi`ered the work of more than 300 new playwrights in the past 24 years. It has introduced such works as ``House of Blue Leaves,'' ``Agnes of God,'' and ``Fences'' to our theater and given work opportunity to dramatists such as David Henry Hwang, Lanford Wilson, and Israel Horowitz. All this has been done with major help from the National Endowment for the Arts.
During the Carter administration, egalitarianism began to replace a perceived elitism in the arts. At this time many groups that were probably undeserving received their first funding from NEA's annually growing budget.
This was a sincere attempt to get funds into the hands of as many groups as possible. It was linked with the concomitant hope that such a strategy would put pressure on politicians to increase funding, since more constituents would benefit from federal artistic largess. In reality, the strategy did not result in a renaissance, but rather a proliferation of mediocrity and no general uprising on behalf of the arts.
With the advent of the Reagan administration and the leadership of Frank Hodsoll, the emphasis has been to put the most money in the hands of the highest-quality organizations, those with records of artistic excellence as judged by peer panels.
But it has been a time of flat funding. Over the years the government's participation in any program or organization has shrunk below the 50 percent level.
The NEA has had a major effect on the artistic output of our nation. Eschewing paternalism, it has set a tone, standards, and an example that have encouraged other areas to provide funds. NEA funds have been the ``carrot'' for private and state participation. Private foundations, which until the mid-'60s did little, began to realize that the arts could not be self-sustaining. Taking the lead from Washington, states and municipalities began finally to realize the huge economic and social potential of nurturing a lively artistic life.
Most important, by simply being a partner - and usually a small one at that - federal and state arts agencies have fostered what might be termed ``artistic Darwinism.'' By that, I mean the survival of the most relevant and excellent, be they ethnic or inner-city, avant-garde or establishment.
The current problem in Washington is certainly not any sort of heavy-handed influence of NEA. Rather it is the fact that, in the face of a growing number of artistically deserving groups, NEA funding has remained at virtually the same level for the past eight years.
In light of this and the current federal deficit, a need exists to find new approaches to government funding and new sources of NEA revenue.
One possibility would be to extend the current copyright law, which now lasts for 50 years after an author's death, an additional 25 years. During this extended period all royalties on plays, music, etc., would go to fund a true ``national endowment of the arts.''
But even with what could be in this way enormous funding, it would still be important that the public sector remain in its junior partnership role. This would keep it from exercising too much de facto control of the arts. This does not suggest that there should be no provision for the possibility of multi-year funding. In general more NEA funds for the arts is, in fact, becoming a necessity.
The past quarter century has seen a virtual explosion of art in America. We have seen culture and its institutions moving toward the center of people's lives. Although not the entire motive power, NEA has fueled the movement and continues to be a vital part of our artistic present and future.