YEAR IN REVIEW 1995 : The Arts : Reports of NEA's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated (Yes--Listen Up, Newt)

At this time last year, a hopeful Jane Alexander, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, was trying to set up a meeting with then-new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, hoping to dissuade Gingrich from pursuing his goal to "zero out" the NEA. Gingrich also planned to do away with the National Endowment for the Humanities and a sister organization, the National Institute of Museum Services.

It was the first time since the inception of the federal cultural agencies in the 1960s that Congress rested in the hands of a Republican majority--and one perceived as aggressively conservative. Moreover, the NEA was up for reauthorization in 1995. From Alexander's perspective, it was definitely time to do lunch.

One year later, Gingrich still will not meet with Alexander. And, though Gingrich did not manage to completely zero out the NEA in 1995, Congress effectively managed to remove quite a few zeros from the NEA budget: In August, the House and Senate agreed to cut NEA funding by 40%.

What appeared to be a final decision, however, is back up in the air. President Clinton's late December budget veto axed the NEA funding bill along with many other appropriations, allowing for hope that the budget crisis might yield relief for the arts.

Still it seems that the compromise that went to the President may be as good a deal as the NEA can get, even if a Gingrich/Alexander peace talk were to materialize tomorrow. In 1995, arts and cultural organizations nationwide launched an organized lobbying effort on behalf of the arts, including setting up 800 and 900 numbers that individuals could call to send pro-arts form telegrams to their representatives. It didn't work.

Longtime NEA foe Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who reportedly likes Alexander but continues to crusade against her, this year managed to introduce new language into the NEA appropriations bill that prohibits funding art that "denigrates religion" or depicts "excretory or sexual organs or activities." Last year, spurred by a stage performance by Ron Athey that involved carving a design into another performer's back, blotting the blood with paper towels and hanging the towels over the audience, Helms sought to prohibit funding for all works involving "mutilation of living or dead human beings or letting of blood." That attempt was defeated in the Senate. The latest Helms language may not stand either--similar wording was introduced earlier in a so-called "decency clause," which was ruled unconstitutional in 1992.

A summer of Capitol Hill fireworks leaves the beleaguered federal arts agency with a meager 1996 budget of $99.5 million, down from $162 million. In October, 89 staff positions were eliminated, a reduction of almost 50%.

A massive restructuring of the agency consolidates 17 former grant categories intofour, targeting grants to individuals. Although most of the NEA's controversial grants in recent years went to organizations, the perception is that individual artists are the troublemakers.

The new guidelines eliminate fellowships to most individual artists by congressional mandate, and disallows general support grants, which have in the past been used by organizations to fund individuals. New guidelines also limit arts groups to one grant application per year. The only remaining individual fellowships are for writers, "Jazz Masters" and the "Heritage" fellowships category.

Eliminating individual artists grants will save money by cutting the number of grant applications from 4,000 to 700, but Alexander told The Times in an October interview that she believed the decision was in part Congress' attempt to "root out evil."

So, as the NEA limps into 1996, the agency seems ripe for one of those "good-news-bad-news" scenarios, the bad news being what has already happened, and the good news being that with news that bad, it would be hard for things to get any worse.

Some NEA watchers are cheered by the fact that Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole is so busy worrying about PG-13 movies that he hasn't voiced any NEA complaints. (Repeated calls to Dole's office result in no enlightenment on the senator's views on the NEA, although his representatives are more than eager to fax a reporter a copy of Dole's recent speech denouncing Hollywood whether that reporter wants it or not.)

John Brademas, chairman of the President's Council on the Arts, was encouraged that Congress did not completely eliminate the cultural agencies. He believes the NEA is unlikely to become a campaign issue as it did during the 1992 campaign for the Republican nomination. In 1992, President Bush forced out then-NEA chair John Frohnmayer as Republican nomination hopeful Patrick J. Buchanan threatened to make an issue of Bush's support for NEA--which, Buchanan said funded "blasphemous and obscene art."

"There are so many other issues that are commanding public attention right now; take the two most obvious, the budget--the overall budget--and Bosnia," said Brademas, a former Indiana representative. "I know Bob Dole; we served together in the House of Representatives, he was a very intelligent and able leader. But it's obvious that Bob has decided, in the nomination process in the Republican Party, that he has to turn to the far right as fast as his legs will carry him. He didn't make a big crusade of his opposition of the NEA; instead, he took on Hollywood, a more attractive target."

Marjorie Heins, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Censorship Project, when told The Times was planning an NEA year-end summary, quipped: "I hope it's not on the obituary page." She said that she does not expect the NEA to top the campaign hit-list either.

"My judgment is that the agency at this point is so crippled, and so fearful for its very existence, that they are going to be so cautious that it is going to be very difficult for even the most assiduous censor to find something that they can make headlines over. They have found more fertile fields."

The NEA, however, is not so confident. Alexander has said she expects tensions to rise in 1996 (although if Clinton is not reelected, she won't have to worry about it, as the new administration will appoint a new NEA chief. If Clinton is reelected, Alexander told The Times in October she expects to step down in two years when her current term ends--although she had not yet informed the president).

NEA spokeswoman Cherie Simon notes that Buchanan, who is once again seeking the Republican nomination, has already vowed to shut down the NEA in his new platform.

The agency, Buchanan writes, "funds blasphemy and filth, ranging from figurines of the crucifix in urine, to women 'artists' smearing their bodies with chocolate, to child pornography, to blasphemous paintings of Jesus." And, adds Buchanan, "the record clearly shows that Senator Bob Dole will not fight our battles on the issues."

Buchanan's examples of NEA transgressions are basically the same ones he used in 1992, though 1995 saw additional artworks targeted for attack. Santa Monica's own Highways, Inc., for example, sparked vitriol from the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Assn. The controversy came over Highway's brochure for this year's Ecco/Lesbo Ecco/Homo Summer festival, which featured partially nude photos of performers and irreverently humorous descriptions of program offerings, including comedian Marga Gomez's act "Not for Republicans," which focuses on "her favorite subjects: pain, regret, self-pity, doom and sex with Newt Gingrich's mom." Wildmon's group mailed multiple copies to the Hill.

Melanne Verveer, deputy assistant to President Clinton, agrees that the NEA is unlikely to become a campaign issue, but does predict 1996 will be the first year taxpayers begin to feel the loss of NEA-subsidized programs.

"When people talk about the NEA they often think about an agency in Washington, instead of a local theater, or a dance company they adore, or museum hours that are reasonable," Verveer said. "All of that will come to show itself in the months ahead, and help people increasingly understand what all this represents.

"It seems if anything is the case, Congress has not moved to eliminate the NEA despite the severity of the cutbacks. There is growing public awareness and energy around the importance of the arts. I think it will not be for several months, but that the ripple effect of all this will begin to have some impact."

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