Arts advocates head to Capitol Hill to ask Congress for bigger NEA budget


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It’s time again for the national arts establishment’s annual choreographed visit to Capitol Hill in an attempt to gain Congress’ ear -- and its favor in coming budget deliberations.

For Tuesday’s ‘Arts Advocacy Day,’ actors Kyle McLachlan and Jeff Daniels will fill the famous-folks slot among those testifying at a congressional hearing on the arts.


Last year, Linda Ronstadt, Wynton Marsalis and Josh Groban were the celebrity artillery in the push coordinated by Americans for the Arts, a leading arts lobbying and support group. The bottom-line results weren’t negligible. Advocates proposed a $200-million annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, and Congress did ultimately up President Obama’s $161.3-million ante for the arts, passing a $167.5-million NEA appropriation. That 8.1% hike (compared with Obama’s proposed increase of about 4%) came amid a dismal economy and on top of a one-time $50-million boost for the NEA to make job-creating grants, part of last year’s economic stimulus bill.

McLachlan and Daniels will be joined on Tuesday by a military man: retired Army Brig. Gen. Nolen V. Bivens, who is expected to testify about the role of cultural diplomacy in furthering America’s foreign policy and national security interests, with hopes of a bigger appropriation toward that end for the State Department. Also in the advocacy lineup are Charles Segars, chief executive of arts network Ovation TV; Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter; Terri Aldrich, director of a North Dakota arts council; and Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts.

This time, the advocates will propose $180 million in NEA spending in the 2011 budget, Americans for the Arts spokeswoman Liz Bartolomeo said Wednesday. That would be a 7.5% hike, vaulting the agency over its previous high-water mark of $176 million in 1992, but still far short of the $272 million needed to equal the buying power the NEA had 18 years ago, before it was nearly dismantled amid that time’s ‘culture wars.’ Obama is holding pat on the arts, proposing the same $161.3 million for the NEA that he did a year ago.

Another lobbying goal, Bartolomeo said, is to lift Department of Education arts grants to school districts from $40 million to $53 million, and to ensure that any education reform legislation provides for treating the arts as a core academic subject, while also instituting stepped-up statistical analysis of how much arts education the nation’s students are getting, and with what results.

Before Tuesday’s hearing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) will receive the 2010 Congressional Arts Leadership Award -- a hand-crafted glass bowl -- from Americans for the Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors. Pelosi is being cited for her role in helping to secure the $50 million in stimulus bill funding for the NEA.

She becomes the eighth Democrat -- and the third in a row -- to win the award. Ten Republicans have been honored since 1997, although it hasn’t helped the political fortunes of the last two: Jim Leach of Iowa (2006) and Christopher Shays of Connecticut (2005) both subsequently lost reelection bids; Leach is now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, appointed by Obama. Former Long Beach Republican congressman Steve Horn is the only other Californian to have won the award, in 2002.


-- Mike Boehm

[Update: This story updates the amount of funding being requested. An earlier version said $185 million.]


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Upper photo: Jeff Daniels, left, and Max Antisell in ‘The Answer Man.’ Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Lower photo: Nancy Pelosi rubs cheeks with President Obama. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press