A leaner NEA refocuses Ax has fallen: With both staff and budget cut nearly in half, Jane Alexander and the arts endowment are concentrating on "exceptional" art.

January 25, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Resigned to deep congressional budget cuts, the National Endowment for the Arts has laid off nearly half its staff and is looking to cities and states for innovative ways to support arts on a local level, the agency's director said yesterday.

Jane Alexander, who as director is overseeing a sweeping change in the NEA's ambitions, said the agency is also changing the categories in which it will award grants, money that has been used to support organizations ranging from Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery to the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society.

"The NEA will focus on choosing the most exceptional arts or-ganizations and on developing a strong leadership role," said Ms. Alexander. "We want to encourage people to build a strong infrastructure in communities [for supporting the arts].

Though the agency escaped the threat of elimination during last year's congressional budget debate, it now faces a nearly 40 percent budget reduction (down from $167 million in 1995 to $99 million).

That is, of course, if Congress and the president ever reach an agreement on the budget.

Last year, the NEA doled out more than $162 million to artists and art groups nationally. In Maryland, the state arts council, which operates as a statewide clearinghouse for arts organizations, received $598,000 from the NEA last year, and individual arts groups received about another $1.5 million.

Ms. Alexander made her comments yesterday at a press conference to explain the changes at the NEA to the public -- and to Congress. "We try to let them know all the changes we've instituted in the agency," she said. "We are doing exactly what [members of Congress] want -- putting money down and it triggers local businesses to say, oh, all right, we'll support this group, too.' "

The reorganization, which Ms. Alexander called "the first major changes" at the agency in 30 years, is meant to streamline the NEA awards process and to decrease the number of grant applicants to the NEA.

By focusing on "exceptional" arts groups, the NEA can maximize its impact as a leader in the arts community. "It is important as a national voice that we help art organizations not only with money but in leadership," she said.

Under the new NEA guidelines, each art group is allowed to submit a single grant application in one of four broad groups: heritage and preservation; education and access; creation and presentation; and planning and stabilization. Previously, arts organizations seeking money could write multiple grant applications and submit them in more than a dozen categories.

But a few changes in the awards process have been mandated by Congress: Wording in the proposed budget could restrict grants to artists whose work is controversial on sexual or moral grounds. And individual artists, except for those who apply in literature, jazz and folk heritage, will no longer receive grants.

The agency's staff, which has been cut from 255 to 146 members, expects the new guidelines to reduce the number of applications from last year's 16,000 to 2,000 or 3,000.

Ms. Alexander also said the agency will work to encourage communities to develop ways of providing a continuum of support for arts groups.

In the next several months, members of the NEA staff will visit six as-yet unnamed cities and will interview community leaders about local efforts to fund the arts. Those interviewed might include "Rotarians, union leaders and educators," said Ms. Alexander. "We will be holding conferences and giving people who haven't voiced an opinion a chance."

In Branson, Mo., which has become a center of country and western music, taxes gained from out-of-state artists are at least partially earmarked to support the arts, Ms. Alexander said. And some states, such as Massachusetts, have allotted part of the funds from state lotteries for the arts.

The most successful methods will be included in a report, scheduled for completion in September, that could be used by other communities to build support systems for the arts, she said. "We want to isolate these models and say 'this works.' "

While admitting that the battle over federal funding of the arts is far from over, Ms. Alexander said the arts community would persevere.

"This is the most creative community in the country, and they are going to come up with the best kinds of partnerships."

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