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NEA fights for its life -- and ours

Chicago Tribune

Is that thing still around? I thought they killed that thing off. Didn’t they?

The thing: The National Endowment for the Arts, our modestly budgeted federal arts funding agency, in its 37th and currently leaderless year, despite the periodic political machinations of “they.”

They: “They” are the agency’s generally conservative political critics, who back in the late 1980s held up -- literally, held them up, on the floor of the Senate -- such NEA grant-funded nastiness as the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe (gay imagery, explicit) and Andres Serrano (crucifix, floating in urine). Those were the days for Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas). They could really sink their teeth into photos like that. With such sweet-smelling political hay, it was harvest time all season long.

Today, the health, tenor and direction of the NEA aren’t exactly the vox populi’s No. 1 water cooler topic. We live in bloody times. America is caught in a strung-out suspense sequence borrowed from too many screenplays: Its citizenry awaits the next sniper attack, the next tarot card (yes, we all have seen too many serial-killer movies), the belligerent threat of American attack on a country that hasn’t provoked us lately.

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Our leaders stay on message, and the message has nothing to do with petty domestic concerns such as the economy or the quality of American life and culture.

Yet last week, the NEA -- which has been rudderless since the George W. Bush-appointed Michael P. Hammond died in January, one week into his chairmanship -- was back in the news a bit as it underwent a reorganization. But that is all it takes to get the nation’s cash-strapped arts industry good and tense.

Under acting chairman Eileen B. Mason, the NEA has rejiggered its internal administration, ostensibly to better serve the agency’s four primary goals: artistic creativity and preservation; learning in the arts; public-private partnerships; and a wider geographic influence. The reason? Mason referred to the agency’s “enormous workload” and pressing “budget realities” in a phone interview last week. (Mason was acting chairman from Hammond’s death until late August 2002, when she reverted to senior deputy chairman, although she continues to head the agency.)

The various NEA program directors now report to two coordinators, formerly in charge of museums and classical music. In the politically embattled history of the NEA, grants in the areas of classical music and mainline museum programming, such as your typical Van Gogh or Wyeth retrospective, have engendered the least cause for political alarm.

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The questions asked by a New York Times story recently were these: Will areas such as theater and folk arts lose financial ground under the new arrangement? Is this simply the latest tooth extraction from a near-toothless agency?

Mason says such fears are “based on nothing. There was never any intention of favoring any discipline over another. It never even crossed my mind.”

Naming a chairman to head the NEA apparently hasn’t crossed the president’s mind, either. Former NEA head Jane Alexander, who saved the agency from abolishment during her stormy 1993-97 tenure, puts it this way: “I would think very shortly the president would put forward somebody in nomination. I hope so.”

Privately, arts lobbyists and administrators suggest that the shortlist of NEA finalists has remained the same for months. They are rumored to be former Texas Arts Commissioner Tony L. Chauveaux; Eilene Rosenblum, executive director emeritus of Young Audiences of Virginia; and poet Dana Gioia, author of “Can Poetry Matter?”

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Perhaps one of these three will inherit an agency that has learned to play it safe, duck controversies, keep a Republican White House happy.

The current White House team includes, among others, Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president. Like her comrade in cultural arms William Bennett, to whom words such as “multiculturalism” belong in the realm of “axis of evil,” Cheney likes her culture straight, white and dead. During Cheney’s tenure as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, sister to the NEA, when she wasn’t whining about the “anti-Western diatribe” of a grant-funded “Frontline” documentary, she was actively trying to abolish her own agency. And the NEA was no better in her eyes.

We should run some numbers at this point, if only to remind the average American taxpayer that our arts subsidy is pathetic.

The new Arts Council funding levels in England, earmarked for 2005-06, total $639 million. The current NEA budget, pending Senate approval: $126 million. America is a rather larger country than England. Why does it think so much less of itself as a cultural entity?

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The NEA’s value has always been, in large part, symbolic, but it has served as a symbol with clout. NEA grants have leveraged millions in privately raised matching funds. Such public-private alliances, says Roche Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, helped the Goodman out of its old space and into its new facility (along with millions more from the city of Chicago, a city that knows the value of culture).

Whenever the NEA gets its new leader, that leader might remind the president: We are our culture. It is not separate from our identity. A renewed commitment on the federal level to funding that culture, in all its diverse, contradictory, controversial, occasionally glorious facets, could serve as “the antidote to the isolationism that could occur,” says American Arts Alliance head Jan Denton, “if this country isn’t careful.”

Playwright Arthur Miller’s early career involved a stint as a Works Progress Administration-funded writer in the waning Depression years. Then as now, for practical and philosophical reasons, he believes in his government’s spending seed money for the arts and for artists.

“When the cannons have stopped firing, and the great victories of finance are reduced to surmise and are long forgotten,” Miller said recently, accepting an award, “it is the art of the people that will confront future generations.

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“The arts can do more to sustain the peace than all the wars, the armaments and the threats and the warnings of the politicians.”

Who knows? Maybe the new NEA chairman can take that argument up the ladder.

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Michael Phillips is theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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