Arts Agency Chief Appeals for U.S. Funds


The head of the National Endowment for the Arts pleaded with a Senate panel Thursday to spare the agency’s budget but congressional Republicans insisted that the question is not whether the endowment’s funding will be cut but how deeply.

Jane Alexander, chairwoman of the agency, appeared for the first time before the Republican-controlled Congress to acknowledge that the question is “whether the agency should continue to exist.”

Yet, in an appeal clearly calibrated for a new conservative Congress, she asserted that the agency more than pays for itself by stimulating the economy and that its main beneficiaries are average Americans rather than wealthy art patrons.

“The arts endowment isn’t a subsidy for the elite,” Alexander insisted before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.


Alexander’s appearance came as Congress began budget deliberations that Republicans hope finally will allow them to eliminate what may be the most hotly contested $167 million in the federal spending plan. Since the Republicans’ electoral blowout in November, it has become clear that, while such long-discussed targets as public broadcasting, farm subsidies and even the Amtrak passenger rail lines have powerful protectors, the arts agency is uniquely vulnerable.

Concerned because of apparently lengthening odds against them, advocates of the arts community have begun mounting a grass-roots campaign from home districts to influence members of Congress. These supporters have mobilized some conservative supporters, including actor Charlton Heston, who this week testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee on his strong support for the agency.

But Republican aides said that, while House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has somewhat softened his opposition to funding of public broadcasting, he remains adamant on the arts-funding agency that he has castigated as a costly “plaything” for the rich.

NEA’s supporters “are making a lot of noise now,” said one senior Republican aide. But if anything, he added, “the attitude here is hardening” in the House GOP leadership.


Indeed, the aide said that the Republican leadership was planning Thursday to press forward with its campaign to fight for elimination of the agency. Another senior Republican aide estimated the agency’s chances of survival at “about 50-50.”


Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), an Appropriations subcommittee chairman with jurisdiction over NEA funding, predicted that the House would cut off money for the agency but that the more liberal Senate would include some money in its budget. The matter will be resolved in conference committee, he predicted.

One sign of the impasse was signaled in Alexander’s disclosure that she has been snubbed in her efforts to meet with Gingrich. “He doesn’t want to meet with me,” Alexander said in an interview on the NBC “Today” show.


The arts agency for years has enraged conservative critics, who have complained of its funding support for such artists as photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose works they consider sacrilegious and obscene. But most congressional opponents now argue that the key question is whether there should be a federal role in funding for the arts.

In the Senate hearing, Alexander argued that every dollar contributed by the federal government helps raise an average of $11 from other sources. The extra money is attracted, she said, by the NEA grants that act as a “seal of approval,” testifying to the value of art works.

But critics lost no time observing that if $11 can be raised from nonfederal sources, then perhaps the additional dollar can be, as well. “Wouldn’t there be a way to secure an additional $1 . . . and spare the federal government this horrendous deficit?” asked Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.).

“It might be possible--it might even be desirable,” replied Alexander. But in fund raising for arts organizations, she added, “we’re a jump-start that works.”


Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said that the NEA’s budget is only half the cost of a military cargo plane and less than the Pentagon spends on all of its military brass bands.

But Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) said that in a time of concern about the deficit money spent for the NEA may come out of other budgets. “Dollars that are going to be spent on the arts endowment are not going to be spent toward something else,” he said.

Alexander asserted that by attracting other private money, the endowment helps build organizations that generate salaries and pay taxes larger than its federal contribution. “The endowment . . . more than pays for itself,” she argued.

But DeWine called her assertion dubious economics. “You could say that about any kind of economic activity,” he said.


Alexander stressed the NEA’s contribution in bringing arts of all kinds to poorer Americans, children and those in regions far from the urban hubs where arts are concentrated. The NEA, she said, helped tiny Wamego, Kan., fund restoration of the only remaining murals from the 1893 World’s Fair; helped bring Irish-American fiddlers, Cajun Zydeco music and Hawaiian dancing to a Chattanooga, Tenn., folk festival and helped pay for an adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” put on by young people in an inner-city neighborhood in Detroit.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) flourished a thick binder containing a list of NEA grants to stress the wide reach of the agency’s project. “That’s not New York--that’s not Hollywood,” he said. “That’s across America.”

Some Republicans indicated that they could support some continued funding of the NEA if the agency eliminated direct grants to individual artists and if it stressed bringing art to art-deprived areas, rather than increasing subsidies for larger existing organizations. But NEA advocates said that it is difficult to disentangle the two functions, since it is often large theaters and museums that conduct such outreach efforts.