Studying the Politics of the Arts : Funding: Jane Alexander vows effort to protect NEA's stature despite budget cuts.


Jane Alexander, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, had not planned for her weekend visit to Los Angeles to fall just two days after the federal arts agency announced that 89 members of its staff would lose their jobs.

Alexander, who was here to attend the founder's preview weekend at the Skirball Cultural Center, has drawn both praise and blame for her restrained diplomacy on Capitol Hill. She was close-mouthed in recent months during the House-Senate negotiations that led to a 40% reduction in the agency's 1996 budget, to an austere $99.5 million. But she was downright chatty Friday about her ongoing battles with the conservative Republican Congress.

She is struggling to establish an entirely new NEA structure as Congress not only slashes funds but exercises more muscle by eliminating most NEA grants to individual artists. Alexander was quick to charge some members of Congress with misguidedly attempting to "root out evil."

During a conversation Friday at the Radisson Bel-Air Summit hotel, Alexander insisted that the arts agency will fight to maintain its stature despite funding cuts and the looming 1996 presidential election, an event that always seems to draw NEA foes out of the woodwork.

"I always believe, in a political system, it's always possible to get more money later," Alexander said. "A lot can be changed in two years, or three, depending on your legislators, and how they feel about a federal role in the arts."

Alexander said about 12% of the agency's 1995 budget went for administrative costs, including Alexander's $123,000 salary. She said that, under the new structure, those costs would rise to about 16% of the budget in 1996, due to employee severance costs, and then average about 14% in future years.

Arts organizations will be allowed only one grant application per year. Congress mandates that individual artist grants will be eliminated in 1996 except for those in literature. Alexander attributes Congress' sparing writers' fellowships to aggressive lobbying by writers including Walter Mosley ["Devil In A Blue Dress"] and playwright Wendy Wasserstein.

Between eliminating individual artists' grants and instituting the one-application limit for organizations, the NEA hopes to reduce the number of annual applications from 4,000 to 700. Alexander said that almost 3,000 of 1995's applications came from individual visual artists, including photographers and filmmakers, who now cannot apply. She said such artists will now be encouraged to seek funds directly from local arts organizations, which are still eligible for grants.

But even if the artists seek funds from arts organizations funded by the NEA, the long arm of Congress may affect whether they receive money. In the past, arts organizations could get grants for general support and use them as they pleased. Now, grants are available to the organization only for specific projects, to be judged worthy or unworthy by the endowment's advisory arm, the National Council on the Arts.

Alexander added she believes that new language inserted into the NEA appropriations bill by longtime NEA foe Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) will be deemed unconstitutional. It calls for the agency to ban funding for art that "denigrates religion" or depicts "excretory or sexual organs or activities." Similar language had earlier been introduced by Helms, only to be overruled in court.

"Every year, Senator Helms comes up with something a little different," Alexander said, sounding wryly amused. "Last year, it was: no bodily mutilation. Senator [Christopher] Dodd (D-Conn.) got up on the Senate floor and pointed out that you'd have to cut out all [depictions of] Christ on the cross.

"But this year really worried me, because the language went through without any consideration," Alexander continued. "And what I want to point out is, if this passes, you are immediately going to have people contesting it, and you are going to have the American people paying millions of dollars in court over something that is just going to be chucked out again.

"It's a mystery to me. It's called politics ."

Alexander said some members of Congress continue to believe that eliminating individual artists' grants will somehow eliminate controversy, even though two of the three most recent flaps centered around organizational grants.

Santa Monica's Highways performance space, for example, came under fire in July for a provocative brochure promoting the center's 1995 Ecco Lesbo/Ecco Homo Summer Festival. Another grant that caused a furor was given to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which provided a $150 honorarium to performance artist Ron Athey, who as part of his performance drew blood from another performer.

Would Athey have been given an individual artists' grant had he applied? Probably not, said Alexander, who added: "I don't know Mr. Athey, but I think it is unfair to him to even project about that, because I don't think he ever even thought about applying to the agency. I think he wants to be free to do whatever he wants to do for the limited audience he wants."

Photographer Andres Serrano--whose photo "Piss Christ," of a crucifix submerged in urine, sparked an NEA feud back in the late 1980s--was recommended for an individual artists' grant in 1994 but was denied funds by a National Council vote, which Alexander conceded may have been influenced by the conservative political climate.

In the case of Highways, Alexander said, the flap ended when Los Angeles politicians, including Mayor Richard Riordan, contacted Congress to defend Highways. She said she hopes such tangible efforts show Congress that communities support the NEA.

Alexander, who has paid visits to Hollywood trying to drum up support for the agency, said she has been disappointed by the response, and believes that it is time for studios to begin establishing charitable foundations "which do not depend on who the CEO is, year in and year out."

"You take something like the Getty [Foundation]; there is a structure that allows them to accrue moneys and give them year after year no matter who is in power," she said. "That has to happen within the Hollywood community."

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