In a rumbling alto, actress Colleen Dewhurst on Wednesday urged a House subcommittee dealing with the federal arts budget to look on a proposed increase as another weapon in the battle to steer young people away from drugs. Send professional artists into the nation’s schools, she recommended, “so that these children can lift their voices and sing, so that they can paint, so that they can understand the spoken word which makes them want to read, so that we can give them an out. “
“We are not asking for charity; we are asking for a partnership,” said Dewhurst, who is president of Actors’ Equity.
Facing a panorama of museum posters featuring the art of Matisse, Gauguin and Georgia O’Keeffe, she was among a parade of witnesses who testified before the Appropriations interior subcommittee. Others included Ernest Fleischmann, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Des McAnuff, artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse and actor E.G. Marshall.
They requested that the National Endowment for the Arts receive an increase of nearly a third, from the proposed $170.1 million for fiscal 1990 to $223.9 million. The endowment, which awards matching grants to arts organizations and artists and helps support state and local arts agencies, currently receives $169.1 million.
Although the $170.1 million budget proposed by President Ronald Reagan and endorsed by the Bush Administration represents the first time since Reagan was installed that any sort of increase for the arts had been suggested, arts leaders pointed out that inflation has increased 31% since 1981, while the National Endowment for the Arts budget during the same period increased by only 5.6%.
“Our arts institutions are severely undercapitalized,” said William P. Blair, chairman of the board of the American Arts Alliance, the nation’s arts lobbying organization. “In terms of real dollars, the arts endowment receives far less federal funding than it did in 1981.”
“With operating costs steadily spiraling upwards and federal support shrinking,” Blair added, “arts institutions are in a precarious position. Meeting their mission as educational institutions becomes exceedingly difficult.”
Blair noted that the Denver Symphony had to cut short its season so that it can “have a season,” that the New Orleans Philharmonic has just reopened after being closed, and “in my own area, the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the great orchestras in the world, for the first time in its history has fantastic, has very large deficits.”
The alliance chairman caused a stir in the hearing room when he mentioned, quoting a newspaper article, that West Germany, the size of Oregon, last year funded its theaters at $1 billion while the endowment gave theaters about $11 million.
“A billion dollars just for the theater?” Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.) asked incredulously. Since 1975, Yates has chaired the subcommittee on the arts budget. During the stringent Reagan years, he was largely responsible for giving the arts considerably more money than what the Administration requested.
Mentioning the request of $223.9 million, Yates added that “if we can do that, we will.” But he noted that the House Budget Committee has been trying for two or three months to find some way out of the nation’s budget morass.
“I don’t mean to throw a damper on your testimony. I’m just trying to indicate the problems,” he said.
Blair countered that he was “very sympathetic” but that he was also “very hopeful that in a trillion-dollar budget, certainly some increase can be found.”
“I would agree with that,” Yates said.
Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.) indicated, however, that increases would be very difficult considering that Congress also has to deal with problems of education, housing and transportation under repeated electoral mandates of no new taxes.
Yates seemed taken aback when Kitty Carlisle Hart, chairwoman of the New York State Arts Council, noted that the state legislature is proposing a 15% cut in the state’s arts budget. Currently the state’s arts budget is $56 million.
Testimony also was heard on behalf of increased budgets for the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose current budget of $153 million had been recommended to increase to $153.3 million, and for the Institute for Museum Services, which has been recommended to go up from $22.3 million to $22.4 million. The American Assn. of Museums is asking for a 13% increase to $24.4 million, “to simply keep up with the cumulative rate of inflation over the past five years,” testified Ellsworth Brown, president and director of the Chicago Historical Society.
Fleischmann, whose testimony was cut short by other witnesses, talked about the gap in arts education, which he said the Los Angeles Music Center is trying to fill. He noted that since he came to Los Angeles, music teachers in the city school district have gone down from 600 to 15. He also said that the generation of 30 year-olds to 50 year-olds is “hungry to know more about the arts.”
McAnuff, whose testimony was also cut, told the subcommittee that theaters are “amassing deficits at a frightening rate and need your help.”
Their time was mostly taken up by Cora Cahan, executive director of New York’s Feld Ballet, who spoke at times movingly and persistently, despite pleas from Yates to shorten her remarks. She maintained that the explosion in American modern dance in the early 1970s was “caused to a great extent by the dynamic, inventive, aggressive program of the then young NEA.”
“I suspect,” she added, “that had the NEA been funded even with the cost-of-living increases, we would not be facing myriad hazards which lead me to perceive American dance as an endangered art form.”