A Comprehensive Arts Policy Is Good Politics And Good for America

A CANDIDATE'S cultural policy is rarely the reason voters select a president. Yet, as the controversy over grant awards made by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has shown, arts funding can become a highly politicized issue. Support of the arts by the federal government has received low priority during the Reagan and Bush administrations, and this would be a good opportunity for all the presidential candidates to state their view of the government's role.

I have some reccomendations:

* A statement of strong support for governmental assistance to the arts on the federal, state, and local levels, free from political interference in the allocation of grants. Certainly, additional funding for the NEA, (or a commitment to work for its reauthorization in 1993 with no more restrictive language or reduction in funding) would set a useful tone.

One needn't agree with every decision made by the arts endowment to recognize the value and validity of the peer review panel used in determining which grants to approve. Expertise in arts matters is found in the arts community, not the political arena. The next president could show his support of the arts endowment by pledging to seek a new chairperson who will both protect the integrity of the peer panel process and who will ensure that panelists be more representative of the nation as a whole.

* Establish arts-in-education outreach to under-served communities and technical assistance as priorities for the arts endowment. These priorities wouldn't burden the agency politically; rather, it would redirect more of its resources in ways that would benefit the young and the poor.

The outreach activities of the NEA, limited as they now are, have been among its most successful and simply need expansion. Arts-in-the-schools programs are especially important now as school boards tend to cut art teachers first when there is a budgetary shortfall. Visiting artists and performance groups cannot, of course, replace full-time, salaried art teachers, but they can cultivate an interest in arts to rural and inner-city schools where no art programs now exist. They also bring excitement where art classes already take place.

Increasing the level of technical assistance - informational and material aid to individuals and organizations - is especially important these days.

Over the past years, the arts have seen a decline in support by a variety of sources: foundations have been giving less as a percentage of total arts support since the mid-1970s. Since 1980, the NEA has endured almost flat funding which, when inflation is factored in, represents a relative decline in dollars. Corporate contributions plateaued in the mid-1980s and have been slowly declining since then. The aggregate support of the arts by states has declined by 25 percent since 1989, with some states (Mas sachusetts, New Jersey, New York) suffering a more precipitous decline than others.

THERE is a new fiscal reality in the arts. Artists and arts organizations must learn how to earn, rather than simply apply for, money. They need on a national scale what the New York City department of cultural affairs provides in its materials for the arts program (accepting tools, furniture and machines from businesses that are relocating or upgrading). They need a wider network of information sources on accountants, attorneys, dentists, physicians, and therapists who will take on artist-patients at a reduced fee.

Technical assistance doesn't cost a lot of money, but it can foster creativity by alleviating many of the material concerns that interfere with the creation, exhibition, and performance of works of art.

* Support legislation that extends copyright protections for the work of commercial artists as well as prohibits "colorization" of classic black-and-white movies. In addition, the ability of artists to deduct the full market value of their creations when they donate these works to charitable institutions should be restored - currently, artists are only allowed to deduct the cost of their materials.

This 1969 change in the tax law has hurt many museums, which now have to purchase contemporary art. Certainly, that change in the law did not bring in a large flood of receipts to the Treasury. Ten states - Arkansas, California, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, and South Carolina - have enacted laws allowing artists to deduct their own charitable contributions for state tax purposes. Their experience can be studied toward a program of tax fairness for artists.

In six states - Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, and North Carolina - inheritance taxes may be paid with artworks. And in three states - Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina - artists are permitted to deduct the cost of their living- working space for tax purposes.

This practice could be extended to the federal level without any significant loss to the Treasury. It would provide a benefit to the public simply because more people will have more art to see and enjoy.

Most "art law" exists on the state level. It allows unscrupulous merchants to market questionable goods in some states and not in others. For instance, eleven states (Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, and South Carolina) currently have "art print disclosure" laws on the books.

They require sellers of limited edition prints to reveal how many prints are in a particular edition, whether or not there are other editions of the print in existence, if the plates are still intact, the year the printing took place, and the name and address of the printer.

New York added sculpture editions to its print law last year. No state requires any information on the sale of photographic editions. This sometimes proves troublesome as "limited editions" are created in different sizes or on different papers. Buyers in other states, however, may or may not receive good information on what they are buying at all. New federal law, or a Federal Trade Commission statute, on the art multiples market would be fairer.

Presidential leadership on all, or at least some, of these issues - a direction from the top of the government that the arts matter and should be enjoyed by everyone - would make this nation much richer. It is time to move past our current mode of saving nickels and dimes by not adequately funding the arts.

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