State arts groups to lobby Congress over NEA grants

January 20, 1995|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

An article in yesterday's Today section incorrectly reported which organization is leading a lobbying campaign to support the National Endowment for the Arts. That organization is the Maryland Citizens for the Arts.

* The Sun regrets the error.

With the future of the National Endowment for the Arts at stake, arts advocates across Maryland are joining forces to defend the federal agency from Republicans in Congress who would like to eliminate it.

The NEA, which gives grants to arts institutions, organizations and individual artists throughout the nation, is under attack from House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others who argue the federal government should not be in the business of underwriting the arts.


In its search for programs to slash, Congress is likely to consider deep cuts in the NEA's budget of $167.4 million -- a decision that could have a tremendous impact on arts institutions across Maryland.

Last year the state received $2.5 million in NEA grants, placing Maryland 13th nationwide in terms of NEA support. In the Baltimore area, the agency helped to fund such programs as a series of chamber music concerts, plays at Center Stage and a proposal to research and design new low-income housing projects.

Anxious to keep those dollars flowing into the state, the Maryland State Arts Council has launched a lobbying campaign on behalf of the NEA -- part of a nationwide effort to save the arts agency.

Jim Backas, executive director of the council, is urging board members of arts groups that receive state funds to contact their congressional representatives and plead the NEA's case.

"We're talking about roughly 2,000 board members who are among the most influential people in the state," he says. "In every town, in every place that has an art museum or a dance company or a theater or a choral society, it is the affluent, educated community leaders who are champions for these institutions. And many of them are Republicans."

In addition, the state arts agency is providing information about 800 and 900 number hot lines which deliver pro-NEA telegrams to callers' representatives the next day.

Maryland Citizens for the Arts, the statewide arts advocacy organization, has created yellow postcards for citizens to send to their congressional representatives.

The cards, which will be distributed nationwide, read: "I support public arts funding . . . I support the NEA . . . and I supported you. Now, please support me!"

"You know that scene in 'Miracle on 34th Street' when the bags and bags of letters are delivered to Santa Claus right in court? That's what we would like to see happen in Washington," says Sue Hess, president of Maryland Citizens for the Arts.

On Thursday when the group holds its bi-annual "Arts Day" rally of artists, arts administrators and advocates in Annapolis, NEA chairman Jane Alexander will make a direct appeal for additional support.

Since the federal agency was created 30 years ago to support arts in America, it has withstood various threats to its existence. When Reagan budget guru David Stockman pronounced the agency expendable in 1981, artists and the public rallied to save it.

In 1989, it weathered public outrage about controversial art included in NEA-funded exhibitions, including homo-erotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and works by Andres Serrano denounced as sacrilegious.

The following year, several performance artists were denied grants because their material contained explicit sexual references and, in some cases, nudity.

At that time, the political debate focused on whether the government should restrict the content of the art it supported.

Though such projects represent a tiny percentage of those funded by the NEA, they continue to provide ammunition to politicians who want to get rid of the agency.

"Performance artists in a free society have the right to do the most extraordinary and bizarre things. That's called freedom of speech," Mr. Gingrich told reporters earlier this month. "But I don't believe they have the right to subsidized speech. There is no place in the Constitution that says the taxpayers must subsidize the weirdest thing you can imagine."

Others say the federal government cannot afford the NEA at a time when its resources are scarce.

"How can we rationalize spending millions on the NEA when we do not even have enough money to effectively deal with the illegal immigration crisis or the crime in our streets?" demanded Rep. Philip M. Crane, an Illinois Republican, in an editorial last year. Mr. Crane has led repeated battles to eliminate funding for the NEA.

But NEA supporters say the arts agency has democratized the arts in America, making them available to those outside the world of privilege. They argue the arts are vital and that only federally funded programs and institutions can bring the benefits of the arts to ordinary Americans.

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