IN THE CLAMOR over financing for the arts one group has been overlooked as an economic resource: artists.
While the majority of writers, actors, painters, musicians and dancers in this country are unable to make a living at their craft, a small but powerful minority are earning vast sums.
By establishing an alternative endowment to the arts, these artists could create a source of financing that would be immune to political agendas and public opinion.
According to Forbes magazine in September, some American artists did quite well in 1990 and 1991.
Bill Cosby earned an estimated $113 million; Kevin Costner, $59 million; Eddie Murphy, $42 million; Tom Cruise, $36 million; and Jack Nicholson, $30 million.
Michael Jackson signed a $2 billion deal with Sony, after earning $60 million in the last two years; his sister Janet signed a $32 million contract.
Madonna reportedly earned $63 million; Julio Iglesias, $45 million; Billy Joel, $31 million; the Grateful Dead, $33 million; and Paula Abdul, $24 million.
Steven Spielberg grossed $50 million. Stephen King earned $25 million; Tom Clancy (who wants to buy a football team for Baltimore), $20 million.
While the earnings of fine artists are lower, a few have acquired substantial wealth.
At the time of their deaths in the late 1980s the estate of Andy Warhol was estimated at $100 million, that of Robert Mapplethorpe at nearly $100 million and Keith Haring's at $17 million.
Although it is harder to gauge the incomes of living artists such as Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, paintings by each sold at auction in 1991 for well over $1 million.
What would happen if the 50 richest artists in America made one-time donations of $2.5 million to an endowment administered by and for artists?
An endowment of $125 million that awarded 90 percent of its interest earnings annually would be able to give out $9 million -- the amount the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) currently disburses in individual grants each year.
In 100 years the endowment, according to econometric programs used by major banks, would grow to $277.3 million, earning $22 million in interest that year alone.
In addition, successful artists who initially received support would be expected to contribute to the endowment.
Such an endowment would not replace public financing for the arts -- it would protect and supplement it.
The NEA's budget for 1991 was just under $176 million, a sum nearly impossible for private donors to generate annually. It is expected to remain the same this year.
By providing alternative support for controversial work, an artists' endowment could insulate the NEA from political attacks while freeing up more public money for basic, crowd-pleasing projects such as local symphonies and art in the schools.
Politicians would be less able to use the rhetoric of protecting taxpayer money to promote policies of censorship and exclusion.
The quantity of mainstream art would be preserved while the perimeters of avant-garde art would expand.
Less dependent on the government for support, artists would be freer to push the limits of their imagination and to better serve as society's critics and conscience.
In anti-drug campaigns, USA for Africa and Broadway Cares, artists have traditionally pooled their talents and resources for humanitarian causes.
Artists should now make art itself a cause celebre.
While future generation are destined to inherit the national debt accrued during the Reagan and Bush administrations, artists can help ensure that they will also inherit the photographs, sculptures, films and poetry born of this era.
In creating a trust for artists they can help keep art vibrant, while establishing a tradition of self-patronage that can withstand all trends.
Susan Jane Gilman is a student in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan.