Power Vacuum at the NEA

May 24, 1993

After four months in office, President Clinton still hasn't gotten around to appointing a chairman for the embattled National Endowment of the Arts, which is still trying to recover from the pummeling it took from conservative senators last year over its funding of controversial images by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. The delay in naming an NEA chairman is causing some in the arts community to question the administration's commitment to upholding the principle of free expression.

The National Council on the Arts, the advisory arm to the NEA, has called on the president to nominate a new director quickly. Meanwhile, representatives of the American Arts Alliance, the umbrella group that lobbies Congress on behalf of arts groups, testified on Capitol Hill in support of the administration's budget request of $174.6 million for the NEA next year. That figure represents an increase of only $158,000. But with no one in the top slot to push for more funding, arts groups figure they are doing well just to hold the line at current levels.

The administration's foot-dragging on naming a new NEA chief has also forced arts advocates to pursue a stopgap strategy to ensure the agency's re-authorization by Congress, which is scheduled for next year. Proposals have already been made to extend NEA's current authorization for two more years rather than conduct the full audit needed for a normal five-year reauthorization.

So far, uncertainty about the next NEA director hasn't had a big impact on arts organizations locally, mainly because overall funding levels remain nearly the same as last year. The biggest difference this year will be in how those funds are allocated, with more money being awarded in the form of state block grants and fewer dollars going directly to individual arts groups.

In the short run, the NEA vacancy means the arts community doesn't have a strong advocate to press its issues with the administration. That's worrisome, but local arts observers say they have seen nothing to make them doubt Mr. Clinton's commitment to freedom of expression at the agency. Even so, the longer the top post remains vacant, the greater the risk the NEA will lose its focus and momentum. In the arts world, as elsewhere, to stand in place is inevitably to risk falling behind.

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