New administration may mean new life for the arts, NEA

January 05, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

After nearly four years of controversy, four years of declining funds, four years of acrimony, politics, factionalism and public attack, the American art world is looking toward the Clinton administration with an edgy blend of hope and anxiety.

"There's been no leadership and that's the problem," said New York gallery owner Ronald Feldman, an energetic fund-raiser for the Democratic Party during the presidential campaign. "With leadership at the top, it would be hard to attack the National Endowment for the Arts. So I think Clinton has to make a public statement about policy at the NEA. He has to affirm the [Democratic] platform's statement that they intend for the arts to flourish during a Clinton administration."

Imminent arrival of the Clinton brigades has infused art aficionados and advocates with anticipation. Certainly change -- some kind -- is coming. Anne-Imelda Radice, controversial acting director of the National Endowment for the Arts since John Frohnmayer was forced out by the White House last spring, has announced she will leave the agency before the Jan. 20 inauguration.

No consensus has formed around a possible successor, however. Nor has the Clinton team turned its attention to selecting a new endowment chief -- although names aplenty are bubbling up along the Georgetown-Kennedy Center fault lines.

Names are untethered everywhere -- actress Lauren Bacall, no less; Mr. Frohnmayer; Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts; Yale Rep director Lloyd Richards;Cynthia Mayada, head of the Minneapolis-based Dayton-Hudson Foundation; former congressman John Brademas.

"Lots of names are coming in for the NEA and the NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities]," said a transition aide. "But we're just slowly moving forward."

Speculation aside, there are a number of qualities that members of the art world would like to see in a new NEA chief. Obviously, advocates want to see someone capable of defending the agency from attacks by religious and political conservatives. Edward H. Able, executive director of the American Association of Museums, describes the wish list as well as anyone.

He says he wants someone with "significant public stature . . . the confidence of the constituency he or she represents and . . . access to the president." Most of all, Mr. Able wants someone who is astute politically and can work with Congress. "Key people in the transition have their favorites and push them forward," he said. "But it's too early, it's all speculation."

Are incidents like the acrimonious campaigns against Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs (1989) and Karen Finley's performances (1990) now things of the past, then? Are they relics of the conservative Reagan-Bush years?

"I think the battle has not been won and the recent loss of the political and religious right [in the elections] has simply stimulated them," Mr. Able said. "I don't think they've been cowed. They'll strike when the moment is hot. If, particularly, the religious right begins to stir up the grass roots as a way of raising funds . . . that will translate into a host of letters to members of Congress denouncing the NEA. That's exactly what happened the last time."

Judith Golub, head of the American Arts Alliance, one of the largest arts service organizations, says that the big turnover in Congress this year poses special problems for arts advocates. Her organization, which represents many of the country's major orchestras, ballets, theaters, operas and choral groups, is looking for a "strong chairman" who will "respect the opinions of the professionals" charged with reviewing grant proposals.

"We have a big problem with all the new members of Congress coming in," she said. "There's a big job of education. We have to show how important art is and how important it is economically. The big question is how this issue [of arts funding and the endowment] will be perceived by them. There's a history, an unfortunate history, which will affect how it is played out. We have to address that."

In addition to selection of a new chairperson, Clinton cultural policy mavens will face another major hurdle this year -- the endowment's basic operating legislation must be retooled by Congress.

The last time this reauthorization process took place, in 1990, a major fracas broke out. The endowment's congressional critics successfully lobbied for restrictions requiring grant recipients to adhere to "general standards of decency" -- language that has since been declared unconstitutional by the courts. These same critics also pushed for a new sheaf of bureaucratic rules demanding detailed progress reports from grant winners -- a major paperwork hassle for small organizations and individual artists.

But perhaps the most significant long-term effect of the 1990 reauthorization legislation concerns the endowment's funding.

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