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Hot Lines to Support Culture

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County arts director Laura Zucker got her call-to-arms last week via fax machine.

She then called Kristen Madsen, president of the California Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, to tell her about it--only to find that Madsen already had the same fax. Another phone call from Zucker got the news to Leni Boorstin, public affairs director for Los Angeles Philharmonic, who added the information to a newsletter she was about to send to Philharmonic board members, volunteers, staff members and musicians. Then Boorstin called downtown’s Museum of Contemporary Art . . .

This is exactly the way Bob Lynch, president and chief executive officer of Washington’s National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, hoped things would happen.

Prompted by a new wave of attacks on federal funding for arts and culture, NALAA last week announced that a group of 57 national arts and humanities organizations have begun an 800 number call-in campaign to “advocate for federal funding for the arts and humanities.”

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It’s simple: Dial the Cultural Advocacy Campaign Hot Line--(800) 651-1575--and, for a $9.50 charge, three Western Union telegrams will be hand-delivered the next day to the caller’s congressional representative and two senators.

Although some arts watchers say such campaigns never carry the clout of personal letters, Lynch said that the arrangement helps arts supporters who may not know who their representatives are or are unwilling or unable to compose their own letters.

The week before, another umbrella lobbying group, the Arts Alliance, also set up a fund-raising toll number--(900) 370-9000 --which presents callers with a message soliciting money for a campaign to sway Congress toward maintaining such agencies as the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum Services and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting by touting their positive economic impact on local communities.

In the course of those weeks, awareness of those campaigns has begun to reach from coast to coast. Margaret Holben Ellis, chairman of the New York Institute of Fine Arts conservation center, said the 800 number gives the fight a focus. “In the past I think we were too diverse in our efforts to be effective,” she said. “The efforts are now coming together.”

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Although lobbying for the arts is the raison d’etre for the organizations involved, NALAA’s Lynch and others say they have stepped up efforts following the election of a new Republican Congress, as well as in reaction to blunt statements from new House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) about “privatizing” (read: defunding) the federal agencies that provide funds to cultural organizations.

The issue is a particularly hot button since the National Endowment for the Arts and its sister organizations, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum Services, are up for collective reauthorization in 1995--congressional hearings begin Tuesday.

“Several of us have been keeping in touch and working on similar campaigns for years, but usually on a smaller scale,” said Lynch. “But this particular time, two things are different: One is that there are just more groups involved, and the second thing is that it is very clearly an arts and humanities effort, whereas in the past we have always done our separate efforts.

“Frankly, Congress is not hearing from arts and humanities supporters in the numbers that they need to. . . . We are facing a situation where Congress wants to move quickly on making some decisions, and they have a lot of wrong information.

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“It’s not crying wolf; it’s calling for action.”

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John Hammer, director of the National Humanities Alliance, said that in 1990 when the NEA was last up for reauthorization, a similar 800 number was used for arts organizations only--but this campaign has now broadened to include humanities organizations as well as museums. “My understanding is that the 1990 campaign generated more than 100,000 communications to Congress. That’s something to think about,” he said.

Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, said, “I do think it’s crucial that the arts community, working in tandem, begin to inform our congressional delegations of the broad support and broad spectrum of artistic activities we are all involved in. . . . I think by working together, the organizations can make clear the number of people we serve (as well as) the great economic impact that arts organizations have on the economy in general.”

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Katy Kline, director of the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that reducing the argument over the value of art and culture to its role in boosting local economics may be simplistic but that it’s OK as long as it works. “At this point I would not be troubled if the larger issues were lost as long as it saves the endowment,” she said.

While word of the 800 number campaign has not yet reached all arts organizations around the country, many have already begun their own grass-roots efforts. Agnes Bain, executive director of Buffalo, N.Y.'s, African-American Cultural Center, for example, has not participated in the campaign yet but said arts groups throughout Buffalo and Erie counties have been meeting since the November election and are lobbying and writing letters on their own. “The political climate has changed. . . . We are doing everything we possibly can,” she said.

“Our organization received a $10,000 grant (last year), which funded our training component as well as our theater season,” Bain continued. “If I lost that money, it would eliminate that entire component from this agency. It would really be very drastic, being an inner-city community organization; we have kids involved who not only aspire to be (actors) but juvenile delinquents. By portraying other characters, they are able to turn themselves around.”

Adds Rosemarie Cano, interim executive director of Los Angeles’ Plaza de la Raza, "(Losing federal funding) would be a terrible thing for all arts organizations--every arts organization has that fear, not just the little ones. But, for us, even if it only means losing one program a year, it is so much needed in our communities--we need so much.”

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Nicolette Clarke, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, said that her state had just been planning a major forum of state arts organizations when news of the 800 campaign arrived. “We clearly knew that the political landscape was beginning to change last fall,” she said.

Clarke said that Vermont’s congressional contingent is very supportive of the arts but still needs to hear about the positive impact of federal arts funding--particularly of NEA dollars earmarked for underserved communities such as Vermont’s rural areas--directly from Vermonters.

The Philharmonic’s Boorstin, however, stressed the importance of letters from arts supporters in areas whose representatives do not support the arts. “Do we (arts supporters) live in enough Republican districts that we can make the difference?” she asked.


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