Gird for battle over funding


January 09, 1995|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The National Endowment for the Arts is preparing to fight for survival as House Republican leaders take aim at its budget and challenge its very existence.

The fight, likely to last throughout the year, turns on a fundamental question: What is the appropriate role of the federal government in financing the arts?

"I would argue that it is not within the scope of Washington, not within the scope of the federal government, to be involved in funding arts activities around America," said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who is chairman of the Republican conference.

"We are out there living high on the hog, funding all of these activities around the country, only to pass the bill on to our kids and grandkids."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and Mr. Boehner have all declared that the federal government has no business giving grants to artists and arts organizations.

Another powerful Republican, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the new party whip, joined them in an unsuccessful vote last year to eliminate all federal money for the endowment, which has long been a favorite target of conservatives.

Senior members of Congress from both parties say that the budget of the endowment is sure to be cut and that the only question is how much. The budget this year is $167.4 million, down from $170.2 million last year.

PBS faces similar battle

A similar fight looms for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes money to public radio and television stations. Leaders of state and local public television will meet here this week to work out a strategy for defending the corporation, which is getting $285.6 million from the federal government this year.

Mr. Gingrich contends that the corporation, like the endowment, is "eating taxpayers' money" and run by "rich upper-class people." But the two institutions are very different, and the arts endowment, in political terms, may be more vulnerable than the corporation, whose radio and television programs reach into most homes in the United States.

The National Endowment for the Humanities also faces cuts this year.

By federal standards, the budget of the arts endowment is small, but the political stakes are high.

The endowment, created in 1965, accounts for a tiny portion of all spending on the arts in the United States. Private contributions to the arts exceed $9 billion a year, according to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel, a private group.

But the endowment is a potent political symbol. Its defenders, including some Republicans, say that it supports mainstream culture and that its grants work as seed money to promote private-public partnerships. They emphasize its value as a tool of social policy whose programs help prevent crime, create jobs and combat illiteracy.

Mr. Gingrich, on the other hand, portrays the endowment as a sandbox for the nation's affluent cultural elite.

In last year's debate, Mr. Armey asserted that "there is no constitutional authority for this agency to exist" and that "the existence of the NEA is an affront to the taxpayer."

In an interview last week on C-Span, Mr. Gingrich said: "I am for the Atlanta Ballet. I'm for the Metropolitan -- maybe the greatest art museum in America -- in New York City. But I'm against self-selected elites using your tax money and my tax money to pay off their friends."

He was apparently referring to the system of peer review under which panels of artists evaluate applications from other artists seeking federal grants.

'Linchpin' for arts funding

The actress Jane Alexander, who is chairwoman of the endowment, said, "A lot of these people really don't understand what the endowment does."

In an interview, Ms. Alexander said: "The federal role is small but very vital. We are a stimulus for leveraging state, local and private money. We are a linchpin for the puzzle of arts funding, a remarkably efficient way of stimulating private money." Ms. Alexander said that she had asked for a meeting with Mr. Gingrich. "It's only fair that he sit down with me and hear directly what we do," she said.

Groups that receive grants from the endowment must match the federal money dollar for dollar, and in some cases they must raise $3 for each federal dollar.

Officials at the endowment say their grants serve as an imprimatur, a seal of approval, making it easier for artists and arts groups to raise money from other sources.

Thus, they say, the grants foster the type of public-private partnership that Republicans say they want. Each dollar from the endowment attracts $11 for the arts from state and local agencies, foundations, corporations and other patrons, federal officials say.

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