Annapolis -- Yellow postcards and several hundred outspoken supporters of the arts greeted Jane Alexander yesterday as the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts told legislators here that art was an integral part of American culture.
The cards, symbols of support for the arts, contained the message: "I support public arts funding . . . I support the NEA . . . and I supported you. Now, please support me!" They would be signed by arts supporters and mailed to politicians here and in Washington to try to shore up support for the NEA and for funding for arts programs.
"This debate isn't about reinventing government," the award-winning actress told the crowd on hand for Maryland Arts Day, a biannual rally sponsored by the Maryland Citizens for the Arts.
"This debate is about how we perceive the federal government," she said. "Is it a function of our federal government to nurture and sustain America's culture? Can we each afford 64 cents -- the price of two postage stamps -- for our quality of life, our creativity, our culture?"
The event, organized by Maryland Citizens for the Arts, is meant to demonstrate to state legislators that many of their constituents value the state's support of the arts. Gov. Parris N. Glendening also made an appearance.
This year, however, the event has broader significance as many conservative members of Congress take aim at the NEA, a 30-year-old federal agency created to provide greater access to the arts for citizens.
Just hours before speaking here, Ms. Alexander stood before a Senate subcommittee that is considering reauthorization of the NEA and pleaded that the agency not be discontinued.
For each dollar awarded by the agency to arts programs, $11 in private funding is attracted, she said. "[The NEA is] the absolute crucial catalyst for attracting this money. There are few institutions able to fly on their own. We're a jump start that works."
Mr. Glendening, who also spoke at the Arts Day, pointed out that the state legislature in 1994 passed a bill that insulates Maryland arts programs from budget cuts.
Last year, the NEA awarded $2.5 million to Maryland artists and agencies, and the state provided nearly $8 million.
Pledging continued support, the governor said, "If the arts are healthy and prosperous it is an indication that our education system is working and our economic growth is good and most of all, that people have hope for the future."
Throughout the day, the crowd of arts advocates gathered on the campus of St. John's College to attend well-orchestrated workshops and speeches aimed at teaching Marylanders how to lobby on behalf of the arts.
"The day is to underscore the fact that a majority of Marylanders consistently believe that the arts are an important part of their lives and their families' lives," said Sue Hess, president of the Maryland Citizens for the Arts.
But organizers are also hoping that other states will follow their example and contact representatives in Washington. "Maryland has really developed a strong constituency and a very loud voice, so this whole yellow card campaign is aimed at starting a fire all over the country," said Rebecca Katz, a member of the group.
Some participants said they were here to shore up local support for the arts.
Others said they were more concerned about attempts in Congress to cut back or eliminate the NEA.
"I want people in Washington to know that arts are crucial to Maryland -- and to the country," said Idalea Rubin, director of the Children's Chorus of Carroll County, a community-based chorus for 8- to 15-year-olds.
For Norman Ross, director of Baltimore's Eubie Blake Center, the purpose was two-fold: He wanted to thank those legislators who had proven loyal to the arts, and he hoped to send a message.
"If this kind of thing can have an individual effect on the atmosphere in Washington with the funding and the NEA, then I'm here to speak up," he said.
A similar theme resounded throughout workshops, over lunches with delegates and in Ms. Alexander's speech.
Of the thousands of grants awarded nationwide by the NEA, only a few had "caused problems for some people," she said.
And as for those in Congress who criticize the agency as one that only serves a select few, she asked, "Who are these elite? . . . Are the children in inner-city Baltimore who attend School 33 the cultural elite? Are the millions of Marylanders who tune in to Maryland Public Television the elite?
"It seems to me that if those who benefit from the endowment are the elite, then it's a mighty huge elite."
By continuing support of arts programs, she added, "we are protecting what it means to be American, and I would contend that a big part of that definition is in our art, dance, music, design, literature, drama, our traditions and our new American works. We must fight for that vision."