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We Can’t Afford Not to Fund Arts

One line during Tuesday’s debate on increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has me stirred.

It came from House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), explaining his opposition to such federal funding: “Is it fiscally responsible to give taxpayer money to some artists who offend taxpayers? I don’t think so.”

It makes you want to stick a history book under his nose. How do we keep electing people to Congress who understand so little of the diversity of expression this country is all about?

Fortunately, the House voted 253 to 173 to at least maintain the current $98-million funding level for the NEA. This is thanks to 58 Republicans who broke ranks with their leadership to support it.

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Not that you can find any of Orange County’s congressional Republicans among those brave souls. Our guys toed the conservative line: Starving artists are on their own. The only favorable vote from here came from Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove, a Democrat.

Not that our congressmen--Chris Cox, Ed Royce, Dana Rohrabacher, Jay C. Kim and Ron Packard--are against the arts. Their argument is philosophical, that the government shouldn’t be in the arts business. I happen to think that is precisely a good way for us to spend our money. But beyond that argument is one that DeLay touched on: Should we only fund art that is not offensive to taxpayers?

It’s a ludicrous debate, of course, since what’s offensive to you might be enriching to me. And vice versa. Since you and I both pay taxes, it’s senseless to make a blanket statement about taxpayers’ tastes.

NEA opponents always bring up Andres Serrano to make their case. He’s the artist who depicted the crucifix submerged in bodily fluids. What you don’t hear mentioned are the thousands of artists or arts groups to have benefited from NEA funding since it was created in 1965. Here are just a few right here in our own turf:

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* The Pacific Symphony Orchestra’s “Class Act” program. With help from a $55,000 NEA grant, it sends ensemble musicians to perform and provide music lessons at 20 elementary schools each year. Students also get a trip to the Orange County Performing Arts Center to see their “adopted musician” perform with the full orchestra.

With school music programs slashed to the bone because of budget woes, these professional visitors are always warmly welcomed. Right now 30 schools are on a waiting list to join in.

* You might recall that composer Elliot Goldenthal’s well-received “Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio,” performed by the Pacific Symphony two years ago, began with a small NEA grant.

* South Coast Repertory has received a $42,300 grant to help it put on John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” next February, part of its American Classics Series. What the money will actually be used for is to help bring high school and college students to see the performance at discount prices. It did the same thing this year for Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

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* UC Irvine arts professor Pat Ward Williams received a $20,000 NEA grant four years ago to pursue her own art work. She’s since exhibited her work at the Watts Towers Arts Center in Los Angeles and is a supervisor in a community art project stemming from the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

I asked Bonnie Brittain Hall, executive director of Arts Orange County, a local nonprofit arts support group, if the demand would be there should more NEA grants become available.

“Oh my goodness yes,” she said. “If we had more NEA money in this county, we would have many, many worthy requests for support.”

Arts Orange County hasn’t qualified for NEA grants because it’s less than 4 years old. Hall says it hopes for NEA help when it qualifies next year. Right now it does receive funding from the California Arts Council, and in turn passes those funds on to art groups that apply for them.

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Congressional pressure has already placed severe restrictions on what gets funded by the NEA. With only a few exceptions, individual artists can no longer directly receive funds. And even people like South Coast Repertory have to be careful what they ask for.

“In the past, we could receive NEA grants just based on our reputation,” said John Glore, its literary manager. “We could then use that money to fund work not even yet written. But now it’s safer to ask for help on the more mainstream plays that we’re doing.”

We aren’t even talking about that much money. The Senate wants to up the House version to a nice round $100 million. That’s less than a cup of coffee for each of us. Over at the Department of Defense, that would just be chump change. It’s also far below the $176 million the NEA received at its funding peak in 1992.

What I’d love to see is the $2-per-person NEA budget suggested by President Clinton’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. That would be about a pack of cigarettes for some of you, a couple of jumbo packs of chewing gum for me. An easy sacrifice that could produce a $500-million NEA budget.

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That presidential committee was headed by former congressman John Brademas, who co-sponsored the 1965 bill creating the NEA. Brademas points out that many art activities help improve local economies. But a fundamental reason for government support, he recently told The Times, is that “Art is and has been part of every great and noble society.”

John Steinbeck comes to mind when you think of noble writers. When “Of Mice and Men” makes it to South Coast Repertory next February, it seems to me our young people will be better off if they sacrifice a night of TV’s “Friends” to take it in. Thanks, of course, to a little help from our “friends” at the NEA.

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling the Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com


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