Former NEA chairs say funding remains challenge for new appointee

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The future head of the National Endowment for the Arts will likely face many of the same funding challenges that have beset the organization for years, according to two former chairs of the federal arts organization.

In separate interviews, Dana Gioia and actress Jane Alexander, both of whom have served as chairs of the NEA, said that the organization continues to be under-funded and that restoring cuts to its budgets will likely be at the top of the next chair’s agenda.

On Wednesday, Jane Chu was announced as President Obama’s nominee to be chairwoman of the NEA. Chu, the president and chief executive of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo., faces Senate confirmation.


The NEA has lacked an official chairman since Rocco Landesman stepped down from the job in 2012. Joan Shigekawa, senior deputy chair, has served as acting chair.

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“The NEA has been without a leader for too long — and the institution has suffered as a result,” said Gioia, who served as NEA chairman from 2003 to 2009. He is a professor of poetry and public culture at USC.

“The NEA is an extraordinarily complex institution to manage.... This requires a constant, capable leader.”

The organization’s budget has been cut a number of times in recent years. The most recent available annual report for the NEA reported a budget of $146 million for 2012, down from $154.7 million in 2011 and $167.5 million in 2010.

For 2013, Congress appropriated $138.4 million for the NEA budget, which included cuts because of the federal sequestration.


“The challenges the NEA faces have remained static — funding,” said Alexander, who served as NEA chairwoman from 1993 to ’97 at the height of the “culture wars.” She said she believes the NEA needs to operate at a minimum annual budget of $350 million.

Alexander is a four-time Academy Award-nominated actress whose films include “The Great White Hope,” “All the President’s Men,” “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Testament.”

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“The NEA is important for artists everywhere. It helps to decentralize the arts from big cities — making sure places from Alaska to Florida get the arts,” she said.

In her job heading the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Chu helped to oversee a campaign to raise $414 million for the center.

Gioia said the new NEA chair will have the challenge of rebuilding bipartisan support and restoring cuts made to the organization. “It helps to have thick skin,” he said. “[Chu] seems like a qualified candidate, and I’m optimistic she will be confirmed.”


When asked what advice she would give the incoming NEA chair, Alexander said, “If you can get the president’s ear, that is the best. I would say to Jane Chu: Always talk to the president. Don’t be shy. You might not always get to the president, but you may talk to the vice president. And Joe Biden was always supportive of us.”


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