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Art Groups Unite in Fight to Save the NEA : Censorship: As legislation is drafted to continue the controversial endowment another 5 years, support for NEA is running 9-to-1 in its favor.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Representatives of 17 major arts organizations have been summoned to a rare Capitol Hill summit conference next Tuesday to try to forge a unified proposal to extend the legislative lifetime of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The meeting was called Thursday afternoon by Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), chairman of a House subcommittee that is drafting legislation to continue the NEA for another five years.

At the same time, Williams and other sources in Congress said some initial signs have emerged that arts groups have finally begun to effectively counter an onslaught of mail and media initiatives undertaken by opponents of the NEA. Williams said mail to his office, which had been overwhelmingly in opposition to the NEA over the endowment’s role in funding controversial artworks last year, has reversed course in the last three weeks and is now running 9-to-1 in favor of the endowment. From Williams’s home district in western Montana--a rural bastion--Williams said the ratio is still 3-to-1 pro-NEA.

Included among the arts summit participants are such mainstream organizations as the American Assn. of Museums, American Arts Alliance and the American Council on the Arts. Also included were more traditionally grassroots organizations such as the National Assn. of Artist Organizations, representing artist-run agencies.

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The roster also listed activist arts-political groups such as the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression and Coalition of Writers Organizations.

The Williams proposal emerged in the midst of a raging controversy over the NEA’s future and after, Williams said, he concluded the turmoil has made it impossible to move ahead with an NEA extension bill proposed by President Bush that would renew the NEA’s mandate, but reject federally mandated controls over the content of NEA-funded artworks.

As recently as early this week, Williams had planned to hold a subcommittee session to make final editing changes in the Bush bill next Wednesday. But at a press conference and in a telephone interview Thursday, Williams said the intensity of the political controversy over the NEA forced him to abandon the plan and, in effect, give the nation’s arts community an ultimatum to come up with a consensus plan to save the NEA.

“It is simply not timely to move ahead with my previously scheduled agenda,” Williams said. “It is absolutely clear that the majority of members of the House of Representatives are going to vote to keep the NEA alive. The question is: Under what structure?”

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In making the statement, Williams acknowledged the difficulties posed for the NEA by the dual forces of conservative opposition that has attempted to dismantle the NEA entirely and a deepening split in the arts community, in which a breakaway group of state arts councils proposed late last week that state art agencies get 60% of the NEA’s money--up from 20% now.

The proposal was embraced as a legislative alternative to the current NEA structure earlier this week by two key House Republicans--Reps. Tom Coleman (R-Mo.) and Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) But there were signs that opposition to the restructuring, in which the NEA would effectively cease to exist as a national, peer-review-based funder of artistically significant work, had begun to mount.

After Robert Reid, director of the California Arts Council, came out in opposition to the plan Monday, other state groups appeared to follow suit. James Backas, head of the Maryland Arts Council, announced his opposition late Wednesday. Backas said arts councils in Alabama, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina and Montana had joined in opposing the plan.

Williams said the special summit committee would meet starting Tuesday afternoon, with a mandate to come up with an arts unity program for NEA renewal as quickly as possible--preferably within about two days.

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Reaction among arts groups was positive. Williams attended a closed meeting of NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer and leaders of half a dozen key arts organizations Thursday morning to present his proposal.

“We’re working together, and working together is always a good idea,” said Anne Murphy, executive director of the American Arts Alliance. “The arts community is sitting down and working and seeing if there are things we can work out. Things are moving very, very quickly.”

Robert L. Lynch, director of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, which represents city, county and other local art councils, said the prospects for success of the Williams plan in resolving the NEA crisis are good.


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