The full Senate is about to vote on the appointment of Jane Alexander to head the National Endowment for the Arts. Alexander, a Tony Award-winning actor well-regarded in the arts community, has not generated any personal controversy. If an actor can serve as chief executive of the United States, no objection can be lodged against one serving as chief executive of a federal agency. Alexander is also an arts activist admired for her work for nonprofit regional theaters.
Her nomination has attracted a good deal of attention, all the same, because of the opposition to the National Endowment for the Arts itself that has arisen since the late 1980s. Founded in the Johnson Administration, the NEA prospered in the Nixon, Ford and Carter years. Ronald Reagan may have entertained a philosophical objection or two, but the NEA occasioned little controversy until the Bush Administration. At that time, efforts to spread the NEA’s wealth outside the mainstream coincided with the beginnings of the national budget crunch that made dubious any expenditure that was less than a matter of life and death. Some enemies of the NEA will take Alexander’s confirmation as an opportunity to draw attention to the most outre art projects funded by the endowment and to argue from them that the endowment itself should be de-funded.
The recent decision by the otherwise obscure commissioners of Cobb County, Ga., to eliminate all arts funding when it was discovered that a county-funded arts project had expressed sympathy with homosexuals has attracted national attention precisely because of the possibility that it foreshadows comparable action at the national level.
In truth, less than a tenth of 1% of the 100,000-plus arts projects funded by the NEA have ever engendered controversy. Almost any government bureaucracy might well envy the endowment’s record in this regard. And few would suggest that Washington pull the plug on, say, the Department of Agriculture, whatever its problems.
Alexander should be confirmed, and the Senate should take the occasion to confirm the National Endowment for the Arts with her.