Jane Alexander, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts through its most politically charged period, announced Wednesday that she is stepping down after apparently winning another year of life for the agency.
Ms. Alexander took over the agency four years ago. She has been praised during her tenure by supporters of the agency as one who rallied the disparate American arts community in the face of conservative claims of elitism and immorality.
During an energetic cross-country trip early in her term, she listened to the concerns of a range of art workers, from museum officials to individual artists to art teachers. She used those firsthand experiences to tell a more detailed story of how the arts worked in America to both the agency's supporters and detractors on Capitol Hill.
The concentrated lobbying of the arts community, as well as Alexander's leadership, was credited with broadening support for the agency on the Hill. The NEA and its supporters faced formidable opposition as the Republican leadership, after taking control of Congress in early 1995, pledged to eradicate the agency. Many opponents criticized it for supporting what they called anti-religious and pornographic artworks, though many examples were drawn from the late 1980s when the agency was run by appointees of a Republican White House.
During the past year, Alexander had to fight intense Republican efforts to close the agency by this month. Both Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and majority leader Richard Armey (R) of Texas repeatedly said they wanted the NEA dismantled. Yet the agency ended the appropriations cycle for fiscal 1998 still alive and with a budget of $98 million.
Even the NEA's opponents had kind words for Alexander's attention to their concerns and for her civility. As Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina said recently during a long denunciation of the NEA on the Senate floor: "The present administrator, Jane Alexander, is a gracious lady. I like her personally, and I think she means well. But the problem persists."
Alexander, a native of Boston, plans to resume her acting career. She came to the NEA job from the stage and screen, having won the respect of her peers through 30 years as a working actress. She had appeared in 40 films and television programs and 100 plays. She earned six Tony Award nominations, four Academy Award nominations and five Emmy nominations. She won a Tony for "The Great White Hope" and an Emmy for "Playing for Time," and her portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt in "Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years" was widely acclaimed.
Yet the Washington stage of politics, controversy, and boosterism was the site of perhaps her hardest role.
In her speeches and congressional testimony, Alexander emphasized the reach of the NEA and the obligations of a country to support the arts. The agency, she said in April, "has led the way in making art accessible to average Americans in every city, small town, and rural area of the United States. Now the issue before you is clear - will the federal government continue to be a partner in preserving the cultural heritage of this nation - will it continue to invest in the creative potential of its citizens and future generations?"
And at the time of her announcement on Wednesday, Alexander said the NEA will be even more important in coming years. "As our nation moves into the next millennium, I believe that the Endowment's role as a national voice for the arts will become even more vital."