NEA prepares to battle for art and survival

August 26, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

Washington -- When Illinois Rep. Philip M. Crane tried last month to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts -- just as he's tried to do for the past four years -- his proposal was voted down by a handy margin.

But the conservative Republican garnered 20 more votes than he had last year, and 40 more than he'd received the year before that.

"At this rate," he smiled and told his Democratic adversary, NEA-supporter Rep. Sidney R. Yates of Illinois, "in another five years, we've gotcha!"

Not so fast, Mr. Yates, one of the agency's congressional founders, is saying.

But having taken a beating by conservatives in recent years over its funding of controversial art -- an attack that continues to gather steam -- the NEA knows it must mount a new offensive and erase its "dirty pictures" image if it's going to prove Mr. Crane wrong.

With roots in the 1989 furor over federally-funded homo-erotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and works by Andres Serrano denounced as sacrilegious, controversy continues to hang over the NEA.

Heading straight for the hot seat again -- debate over funding and reauthorization looms on Capitol Hill next month along with the confirmation hearings for nominee Jane Alexander as chairwoman -- the 28-year-old NEA, with help from the arts community, has geared up to begin taking control of its image.

And so has the opposition.

"There's some real serious work this agency has got to do," said an NEA official who asked not to be identified. "The Clinton administration is going to be the barometer of whether the agency is going to exist or not."

One NEA supporter, Robert Lynch, executive director of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, agrees that the agency is moving into a critical, perhaps decisive, season.

The endowment's reversal yesterday of a Bush administration decision to deny funds to three gay and lesbian film festivals appears to be a step in a new direction.

"The agency has a great opportunity to totally reposition itself -- and I think it needs to," says Mr. Lynch. "It will be facing continuing, mounting problems unless that image is turned around. And it now has an opportunity that can be either positive or controversial."

Conservatives -- including a Christian right group and members of Congress -- are doing their best to keep the controversial label alive, hitting on two fronts: economic, suggesting there's no room for an arts endowment in this time of mounting deficit and debt; and content, arguing that taxpayers are funding offensive or anti-Christian images.

The NEA -- whose annual budget last year was $175 million, or about one-fifth of one guided-missile destroyer -- is trying to counter those charges by talking up its educational programs, children's programs, projects that bring the arts to the disabled, the elderly, the inner cities and rural areas, and its projects that have economically revitalized communities.

And it plans to respond to attacks in a way it rarely did during the Bush administration, when the outcry over a handful of controversial grants caused Congress to pass restrictions requiring NEA grant recipients to adhere to "general standards of decency."

Even so, in the battle of images it is clearly an uphill fight. The agency awards about 4,000 grants a year totaling about $153 million. In Maryland, for instance, the NEA's quarterly awards last month included more than $500,000 to a variety of arts organizations and institutions -- everything from Center Stage and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to the Maryland State Arts Council for arts projects in under-served communities.

But there's also the NEA-funded project near San Diego, in which three artists handed out $10 bills to illegal immigrants to illustrate the immigrants' role in the economy, that landed on the front page of the New York Times last week.

"This is outrageous," wrote Republican Rep. Randy Cunningham California, one of the 105 who voted to eliminate the NEA this year, in a letter to the endowment. "I can scarcely imagine a more contemptuous use of taxpayers' hard-earned dollars."

An NEA spokesman said the agency's audit staff is now reviewing the way that money, part of a $5,000 grant awarded in 1989 to the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, is being spent.

Such publicity is "very damaging," admits arts executive Mr. Lynch. "No matter how plausible or positive this is as a conceptual piece, it just doesn't come across that way. And I guarantee it comes across less positively on the floor of Congress."

In fact, much of the battle of images is focused on Congress, with the endowment sending packets of information about valuable NEA-funded projects in each member's state or district, while its opponents send whatever examples they can find of questionable grants.

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