Times Staff Writer

At the end, after all the sophisticated talk at this National Assembly of State Arts Agencies conference about budgets, grant-matching guidelines and parliamentary procedure, the words that lingered belonged to an artist.

Her name is Barbara O'Brien. She is a performing artist who goes by the stage name of Betina. With her partner David Brown and two video screens, she appeared before the assembly at the Walker Art Center auditorium in Minneapolis, doing an excerpt from a rather avant-garde piece entitled, "Object of Desire: Did TV Make Us the Way We Are Today?"

As the closing note, she delivered an "ultimatum," which she said was prompted by a letter she got from a supporter who advised her that he would no longer back her work. "He said, 'I don't want to support the arts anymore, at all. "

O'Brien spoke about money and implicitly about power--which is what this four-day conference, which ended Sunday, has been all about.

She is also the mother of two children, ages 3 1/2 and 6.

"Allow artists to share the dreams that others are allowed," she said. "Don't make the dream about artists' housing; make it about housing. Don't make the dream a dream of enough money to create art, make it enough money to have children and art."

O'Brien, whose work is partially funded under a touring artists program sponsored by the Minnesota State Arts Board, also spoke of "wanting to take risks, while at the same time having health insurance for my children. . . . And I don't think my dream is different from your dream. And I don't think we are in two different worlds."

At another point in the conference, State Rep. Tish Kelly (D-N.D.), chairwoman of the National Conference of State Legislatures' committee on arts, tourism and cultural resources, told delegates here not just to stress the "quality of life" argument when championing increased budgets for their state arts agencies, but also to "remember the artist." Privately, she worried that arts managers sometimes forget artists, as they "get caught up in their own bureaucracies."

And California Arts Council member Consuelo Santos-Killens, leading a session on "Women in the Arts," reflected: "Oscar Wilde said, 'Next to torture, the arts persuadeth the most.' What brought about more healing on Vietnam than the Vietnam Memorial Sculpture? . . . "

Meanwhile, the arts agency assembly is beginning to flex its political muscle. For the second year in a row, it has presented a major challenge to the National Endowment for the Arts on endowment policies, and the way the endowment makes policy.

Capitalizing on NEA chairman Frank Hodsoll's emphasis on "partnership," the assembly is letting the endowment know that it wants to have a significant voice in the formulation of endowment guidelines--particularly where the agencies are involved.

The reason for the art agency assembly's attitude probably can be traced to money, and thereby power. The assembly now has financial clout. For the second year, the combined appropriations from 50 state legislatures to the arts agencies has exceeded the sum the endowment appropriates to the individual agencies through its mandated public partnership program. And Hodsoll knows it.

"Last year's state funding for the arts exceeded the endowment's funding by 30%," Hodsoll told the assembly last Friday. "This year the gap will widen. . . . While state arts appropriations for fiscal year '87 appear to have grown somewhat less than the year before, funding is up for 42 state arts agencies, down for only 11, and even for three." (Hodsoll is including the six territories in his count.)

Hodsoll praised "the growing strength of state level public arts support, particularly when one considers that some 31 states are experiencing economic difficulties and that some of these--the oil patch and much of the farm belt, for example--are in very tough shape."

Although California is among those that has increased funding to its arts council, the state still ranks 27th among the 50 in per-capita funding for the arts, at a rate of 47 cents per person.

The major point of contention between the agencies and the endowment is over the matter of challenge grant guidelines.

While the endowment is effectively opening up the grants for the first time to state and local arts agencies, Hodsoll is insisting on a three-to-one match of exclusively public money; he does not want the arts agencies competing with private institutions for private bucks. Almost to a person, arts agency leaders maintain they cannot extract that kind of additional funding from their governors and legislatures.

But there is also the matter of pride. The assembly is signaling that it is not going to sit back and allow the endowment to come in and lay down the law. Or, as Frances Abbott, an Auburn, Me., city councilwoman and chairwoman of the Maine Arts Commission, declared at the assembly's main business meeting this weekend: "It's audacious for the endowment chair to present to us guidelines in that form."

Hodsoll is scheduled to present his final challenge grant guidelines to the National Council on the Arts, which is the endowment's advisory body, for approval in November.

Such was the atmosphere of discontent here that, when Bennett Tarleton, director of the Tennessee Arts Commission, got up to invite the delegates to next year's convention in Nashville, he quipped: "We will invite the chairman (Hodsoll) to speak . . . unless you put in your evaluation, 'Don't you dare invite him.' "

While the assembly has only the power of persuasion at its disposal, nevertheless it is determined to use it. At the weekend meeting, the assembly instructed its executive director, Jonathan Katz, to dispatch a letter to Hodsoll protesting the endowment's policies and procedures.

Indeed the assembly was ready to vote in a resolution saying they would not back the guidelines, unless there was a provision that the agencies could use private matching funds. But Gary Young, executive director of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, who was elected the assembly's new chairman Saturday, pointed out that it would leave the assembly "without any options . . . and in a very awkward corner."

So Mary Hays, executive director of the New York Council on the Arts, and the assembly's new first vice-chair, withdrew her resolution: "I want the people of the Endowment to know (particularly those in the room) that these concerns should be taken very, very strongly."

Last year the assembly was able to persuade Hodsoll to compromise on the arts education issue, and hopes to accomplish the same sort of accommodation with challenge grants this year.

Another bone of contention involves the new locals program for local and also state arts agencies. Like challenge, the endowment is requiring that local or state arts agencies get funding from new public arts dollars.

In what the endowment considers a highly successful three-year test program, $6 million of endowment support generated $28 million in non-federal, public matching funds, as well as additional private funding. However, local arts agencies officials complain that with a minimum grant of $150,000 in federal support--and a minimum input of $5,000 from the participating local agencies--the smaller, rural agencies would not be able to qualify. (The endowment contends that half the local arts agencies receiving support are in communities with populations under 50,000.)

"Can you imagine Trinity County (near the Oregon border) coming up with that kind of money?" asked Bob Reid, director of the California Arts Council.

Meanwhile, there is a third area of dispute between the endowment and the assembly which, over the next few years, could prove the most divisive. By law, the endowment must allocate 20% of its grants money to the state agencies.

In his speech last Friday, Hodsoll stated: "With your help we propose to explore the possibility of using that portion of 20% funds currently apportioned on the basis of population in ways that might have greater impact. . . . We look forward to working in partnership with you on this matter, as we have done on so many others."

As Katz noted as the convention opened, when politicians can't give you any more money, they try to insist upon ways to spend the money they already give.

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