When Barbara Bush walked into a reception here last Tuesday night for public television’s new series “Learning in America,” the first question she was asked concerned the vacancy for the top post at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Livingston Biddle, a past chairman of the endowment, wondered how the selection process was coming along. “We’re all waiting with bated breath,” Mrs. Bush replied easily. But when Biddle said he had heard she was involved in the selection process, the First Lady demurred: “Oh, no!”
On Wednesday, Milton Rhodes, 44, president of the American Council for the Arts, a New York-based arts advocacy group and an announced candidate for the endowment position, showed up at a House subcommittee hearing on the arts budget. When he left, Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), the subcommittee chairman, casually wished him good luck.
At about the same time, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who sits on Yates’ subcommittee, left the hearing room to keep a luncheon appointment with another candidate for the endowment job, Schuyler Chapin, 66, a former dean of the School of Arts at Columbia and former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.
The hot name now, however, is Marta Casals Istomin, 52, artistic director at Kennedy Center. She is said by arts observers to offer three important attributes from Bush’s perspective: She is a woman, she is a minority (a native of Puerto Rico) and, as a violinist and cellist, she is an artist.
Lobbying, maneuvering and speculation regarding President Bush’s nomination for the fifth chairman in the endowment’s 24-year history are blossoming faster than the proverbial springtime cherry blossoms.
Among the rumors: that Beverly Sills had been asked by the Bush Administration to take the endowment job but turned it down. A spokesman for her New York agent, Edgar Vincent, categorically denied the rumor.
Although it is considered a small agency, with a $169.1 million budget, the National Endowment for the Arts is the arts community’s link to the federal government, helping to fund arts organizations and artists. Although almost all endowment money requires matching dollars from the private sector, grantees feel that with the endowment’s “seal of approval,” they have entered a privileged circle. The chairmanship carries particular cachet among artists and literati.
White House sources say Mrs. Bush is keenly interested in the choice as a way for the Bush Administration to make a statement about the importance of the arts. “The President and Mrs. Bush consider it a very important decision,” a key personnel official said.
Meanwhile, the American Arts Alliance, the official arts advocacy and lobbying organization here, is attempting to play a major role in the selection process. The organization has written twice to Bush in the past two months asking for a nominee with two key qualifications: a “passionate commitment to the arts” and the “ability to communicate with and influence top decision-makers in the private and public sectors.”
In other words, executive director Anne Murphy said in an interview, the alliance wants someone who has high-level access at the White House.
In the second letter, March 3, the alliance provided a list of people it considered to be qualified candidates. Although Istomin’s name was not included, Murphy said that the alliance would “not be unhappy” with her choice.
Istomin, who was on vacation for a few days with her husband, could not be reached for comment, but a spokeswoman at the Kennedy Center told The Times that Istomin has an appointment to meet with a member of the “search committee” at endowment headquarters to discuss the job.
Istomin has been artistic director at the Kennedy Center since February, 1980 and is responsible for policies and programs there in music, opera and dance. Her first husband, to whom she was married for 17 years, was the world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals. She helped the maestro create the Festival Casals in Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and the Conservatory of Music. For the past 14 years, she has been married to concert pianist Eugene Istomin.
Chapin was on the American Arts Alliance’s list of qualified candidates. His supporters also include William F. Buckley and David Rockefeller, who have written letters on his behalf.
“I have spent 40 years of my life in the arts,” Chapin said in an interview. “I think I have a sense of the needs of the artistic communities.”
Rhodes has had letters written on his behalf by friends of the Bush family, including Laura Lee Blanton, wife of Jack Blanton, a Texas tennis partner of the President, and Philip Hanes, a founder of the American Council for the Arts.
The arts alliance considers Rhodes to have the right amount of passion but not enough access. And he may have diminished his chances by critical statements he made about Reagan-Bush arts policies during the presidential campaign last year.
Until Istomin’s name cropped up, Barnabas McHenry, 59--co-vice chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, with trusteeships on the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet and the Egg Theater in Albany, N.Y.--was deemed the endowment front-runner. McHenry’s solid-gold connections include friendships with Secretary of State James Baker and Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas F. Brady. McHenry roomed with Baker for four years at Princeton.
Several arts leaders, however, told The Times that they let the White House know they would not view a McHenry nomination favorably, mainly because they consider his background to be in fund raising rather than the arts itself.
Another highly visible candidate for the chairmanship is Lois Burke Shepard, 51, the outgoing director of the Institute for Museum Services. As a former head of Republicans Abroad, Shepard says she is the only candidate with three years administrative experience in the federal bureaucracy.