This spring the 105th Congress and the Clinton administration are wrangling over a matter that arouses passion in both liberals and conservatives.
The matter is art - specifically, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The endowment was founded in 1965 to financially assist projects and people - from museums, operas, and regional theaters to painters, poets, and other creative writers.
The Clinton administration, its congressional allies, and liberals in general want to increase the endowment budget, which the Republican House chopped - from $136 million in 1995 to $99 million for '96 and '97. Republican conservatives in the House - and, to a lesser degree, the Senate - are hoping to kill off the NEA. Hearings over the next two weeks should reveal what the future holds.
The pared-down arts-agency budget meant a sharp reduction in the first phase of 1997 grants, announced April 10. The 736 new grants for about $67 million account for 79 percent of the endowment's grantmaking for this fiscal year.
A total of 494 grants for $23.5 million were given to organizations fostering new works. They include Ohio's Canton Symphony Orchestra, an exhibit of native American art at Seattle's Sacred Circle Gallery, and the Madison Opera for a program that brings opera to Wisconsin communities and elementary schools. About 27 percent of the grants and 21 percent of the dollars went to New York groups. Of these, the Whitney Museum of American Art (see above) received a $400,000 matching grant - which means the museum must raise $5 for every $1 from the NEA.
Nearly $30 million will be distributed to communities in the 50 states for Partnership grants.
The present battle over the NEA began with the 1994 midterm elections, when the Republicans seized control of Congress. GOP newcomers had campaigned on pledges to cut federal spending, thereby reducing the size of the deficit-ridden government and ultimately balancing the budget. They were promises the freshmen GOP members - who quickly earned the collective sobriquet, "Republican revolutionaries" - meant to keep. Among hundreds of other targets for budget cutting, the NEA stood out like a diamond in a coal scuttle.
The year before, President Clinton had appointed the distinguished actress Jane Alexander to head the NEA. It was a shrewd choice; Ms. Alexander is a widely known and admired performer on the stage, in television, and movies. She has the patience and empathy of a seasoned diplomat. The Senate confirmed her unanimously.
'Pornography posing as art'
The NEA had in recent years drawn thunderbolts of political wrath over projects it helped underwrite. In 1988, the agency awarded a grant to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia for a retrospective show of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The show moved to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, where its homoerotic pictures aroused the fury of many members of Congress. The NEA was accused of spending taxpayers' money on pornography posing as art. The Corcoran exhibition was closed.
Chairman Alexander began touring the country in 1994. In lectures and project inspections she de-emphasized avant-garde art and stressed the rich mixture of regional American arts, crafts, and performances.
In a recent Monitor interview, Ms. Alexander said that, since its bipartisan founding, the NEA had always enjoyed a broad base of support in Congress "until the late '80s, until the business of Mapplethorpe. Then people began to question what the taxpayer was paying for. Unfortunately the media went with the sensational aspects only."
While the NEA chairman was trying to reshape perceptions of the agency's mission, conservatives in the 104th Congress were planning its demise. After slashing its budget for the next three years, Republican revolutionaries declared that the NEA should be put out of business in 1998. House GOP leaders agreed. The Senate's more moderate Republican leaders did not. A principal objection to the NEA was that the federal government had no business funding the arts.
"The governments of all industrial nations help fund the arts," Alexander replies. "We're extremely modest in what we give - our donations to the arts cost individual Americans 38 cents a year. No other major nation is as low as that. France fluctuates around $50 per citizen per year. They don't have a lot of private subsidy. Ninety percent of our art patronage in the US is private.
"Keep in mind," she adds, "this country has a unique public/private partnership for funding the arts."
She is referring to the system under which, for example, a project somewhere in the country - a play, an opera, a folk arts festival - files a request with the NEA for $75,000 to help with start-up funding. The NEA agrees - but won't pay until the project's managers go out and raise another $75,000 from private sources.
Under changes dictated by Congress or instituted by the chairman herself, the NEA no longer endows institutions. Rather, it helps fund individual programs - such as special exhibitions or plays - that the institutions develop.
The NEA has stopped subsidizing individual artists except for creative writers. No one is quite sure why Congress made the exception for writers.
The 105th Congress is now in session. The NEA had one Senate appropriation hearing on March 15; a Senate reauthorization hearing will take place on April 24, and a House appropriation hearing on April 29.
Meanwhile, there are splits in the ranks of House Republicans. As the issue becomes more familiar, some GOP members are switching sides. Majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas says at present he can no longer muster enough votes to destroy the NEA.
On April 10, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia held a news conference at the Capitol. He and Republican conservatives from both chambers tried to rally support for ending the life of the NEA in 1998.
"If the people who come to lobby us who are famous and rich would simply dedicate 1 percent of their gross income to an American Endowment for the Arts," Mr. Gingrich said, "they would fund a bigger system than the National Endowment for the Arts."
Gingrich and his supporters immediately came under a counterattack by an assembly of moderate Republicans and Democrats.
The NEA will probably always be controversial. But the 1997 signs and portents suggest that it will endure at least through 1998.