Boston Arts Groups Band Together to Support NEA

LEADERS of major arts organizations here, buoyed by a new sense of activism, gathered at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum last week to announce a grass-roots campaign in support of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The meeting of dance, theater, and museum officials was timed to coincide with the beginning of congressional deliberations over 1993 funding levels for the agency, which has been under attack during the last three years by legislators and religious groups for awarding grants to some controversial artists.

"The glorious flowering of nonprofit dance, opera, art, music, and theater in this country since the '60s has unquestioningly been primarily due to the founding of the NEA in 1965," says Robert Brustein, artistic director of American Repertory Theatre. "To permit power and politics to kill it now would be a much greater obscenity than anything disturbing the feverish imaginations of Jesse Helms [United States senator from North Carolina]...."

Other directors on hand for the kick-off of the "Stop the ART Attack!" campaign included those from the Boston Ballet, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, and the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Outmatched in the past by the well-orchestrated efforts of NEA opponents, arts leaders say they are determined to be on the offensive this year in getting out their message.

"I think we can take some blame in the arts community for not being effective lobbyists in Washington," says Museum of Fine Arts director Alan Shestack. "We are rededicated to that effort now."

Postcard writing campaigns, buttons and bumper stickers, and participation in telephone call-ins to US senators and representatives are part of Massachusetts arts groups' strategy this year.

Such local-level tactics are on the rise nationally, arts leaders say.

"We think the arts community is banding together and showing a united front [this year]," says Lee Kessler, acting director of the American Arts Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group for performing and exhibiting arts institutions.

To unify lobbying efforts across the nation, the alliance and other arts agencies sponsored a "National Call-In Day for the Arts" last Tuesday, the same day Capitol Hill hearings on NEA appropriations began.

"Not enough has been said as to what [NEA] programs are doing in local communities," Ms. Kessler says. "The legislators aren't tied into that network."

THE press conference at the Gardner Museum featured a performance by students enrolled in the Boston Ballet's "Citydance" program, which provides free ballet instruction to urban children. The outreach initiative, in addition to other activities at the ballet, received a $500,000 challenge grant from the NEA this year. Ballet officials say the grant was a significant factor in levying additional private funding.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, "The NEA ... has been the single most important catalyst for the sharing of collections, for accelerating and improving conservation work on deteriorating or vulnerable collections, for the support of living artists, and for the creation of compelling special exhibitions," Mr. Shestack says.

Barry Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, says the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent rioting in Los Angeles should remind the public that "we are in desperate need of the promotion of 'social wholeness.' "

The NEA, Mr. Gaither says, "has been a principal instrument" for promoting education and the arts, "the two most vital aspects of public healing.... It is a vehicle which should not be lost."

Shestack echoed Gaither's sentiments: "Do we want Uncle Sam to get involved as he did in L.A., after the riots are out of control and millions of dollars have to be spent to send in troops to restore order? ... For 68 cents a year [the current amount per taxpayer that goes to support the endowment], the NEA really does make life better in this country."

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