Jane Alexander Works to Recast NEA Image

The arts agency's new chairwoman eases into ambassador role, while handing out program cuts

AS a stage and screen actress, Jane Alexander earned a reputation for versatility. But in Washington, as she implements a congressional budget cut at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she finds herself poised to play one role over and over again: Scrooge.

Last week, the NEA chairwoman announced sweeping cuts for all grant categories, particularly music and dance, that will reverberate throughout the arts community.

While the 2.5 percent reduction in the NEA's budget, approved last summer, was relatively mild by Congress's standards, the endowment is already running lean. With a relatively scant budget of $174 million, the NEA supported more than 4,000 artists last year.

``We're not cutting fat anymore,'' Ms. Alexander says, ``we're cutting into muscle and getting right down to the bone.''

Under the plan, two programs are being eliminated: the Dance Heritage Initiative, a program to videotape dance productions across the country; and the 20-year-old Professional Theater Training Program, which provides grants to acting schools.

Speaking to reporters in Boston last week, Alexander said the theater program, whose alumni include Kevin Kline and Robin Williams, was zapped because NEA administrators did not want to reduce funding for the 234 nonprofit theaters the endowment supports.

``We've already cut $600,000 in the past three years and [the theaters] couldn't sustain anymore, they simply couldn't make it,'' she says.

Alexander added that she hoped the universities and institutes could keep the training program alive ``for the time being.'' These cuts bring the total number of NEA programs eliminated since 1990 to 16.

Since her enthusiastic confirmation in September, Alexander has visited 17 states in an effort to mend the image of the 30-year-old endowment, which has come under fire in recent years from inside and outside the Beltway.

Critics have charged, among other things, that the NEA pays more heed to the concerns of artists and arts groups than to Congress and the general public. Since then, the endowment has placed a stronger emphasis on promoting community-arts programs and arts education.

``I feel it's important that the American public understand not only how the arts impact on their lives in general, but also how the endowment does in particular,'' Alexander says. ``We have programs in 90 percent or more of our congressional districts across the country, and I don't think the public knows that.''

Alexander mentioned two NEA initiatives underway that are designed to amplify the voice of the arts community and to help the endowment defend itself against its most vociferous critics.

First, she says, the NEA will sponsor a National Artist Task Force, coordinated by state and regional arts councils, that ``will ask the artist in society to come out and be a part of the community and speak out about his or her art ... and talk about the endowment.'' Second, Alexander says she will choose two distinguished artists in each artistic field ``to be ambassadors for the arts.''

In addition to these strategies, Alexander says the endowment has mounted an effort to widen its scope. She mentions both a program called ``Mayors for Design'' in which city mayors consult with the NEA design staff about public-works projects, and a recent NEA grant to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to study the design of bridges and overpasses.

While the NEA scrambles to secure its future, it has benefited lately from a friendlier arts climate in Washington. Alexander says other government agencies have expressed interest in ``creative partnerships'' such as a combined NEA and Department of Education effort to bus inner-city children to arts centers and museums.

In addition, Alexander points out that the Clinton administration included a plan to encourage arts curricula in the schools in its ``Goals 2000'' program. ``The president and the first lady would like to see the arts as part of the lives of all Americans,'' she says.

The NEA's next test comes in February, when reauthorization hearings convene in the Senate. During similar hearings in 1991, senators mandated that the endowment distribute more of its budget to state-level arts councils.

Alexander says she has been knocking on doors on Capitol Hill but has no idea whether NEA critics are plotting another attack.

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