Cultural Commitments: Rethinking Arts Funding Policy

Article excerpt

As the thirtieth anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) came and went, uncelebrated, last September, the agency was hunkered down, dispirited, trying to stay out of the Congressional crossfire. The NEA's funding levels - and its existence - have been threatened in the past, but its future has probably never been in such jeopardy. Last December Congress voted to fund the NEA at $99.5 million for Fiscal Year 1996 (ending September 1996), reflecting a 40% reduction in funding levels from the previous year. In the last year the agency has trimmed its staff by 90 people, rewritten its funding guidelines to reflect four broad categories (narrowed from 17) and mandated that arts organizations submit only one application in any of the categories per year. Also, grants will no longer be given to individual artists (with the exception of literature, Jazz Masters and Folk Heritage Awards). A series of "continuing resolutions" is allowing for budgeted money to be released through March 18. At that time, a Presidential budget will be released for all government agencies. It is expected that Congress will continue to release budgeted NEA funds for FY 96. Ultimately, though, the NEA's future remains unclear: reauthorization hearings remain pending, but may not come up in this election year.

Arts advocates can only feel sadness at what is happening, and not least because of the loss of vital funds. Even more disheartening is the realization that the arts are being wiped off the national agenda. By contrast, the NEA was founded on widely held, positive beliefs about the arts: that they are a mark of civilization, a source of pride for the citizens of a nation and a responsibility worthy of public support. "We stand," wrote presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960, "on the verge of a period of sustained cultural brilliance."(1) Was he right? Has America's cultural moment come and gone? Or does it yet lay before us?

These larger questions haunt four recently published books discussed here: Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding (1995), Arts in Crisis: The National Endowment for the Arts versus America (1994), The Arts in the World Economy: Public Policy and Private Philanthropy for a Global Cultural Community (1994), and America's Commitment to Culture: Government and the Arts (1995). Appearing in the wake of one tumultuous arts-related crisis after another, these publications are to varying degrees shaped by raucous debates over public funding. The authors fret about the well-being of the arts even as they search for answers to questions about what went wrong, whether the current outcome could or should have been avoided and what can be done now.

Joseph Wesley Zeigler's Arts in Crisis: The National Endowment for the Arts versus America is the only book devoted specifically to the NEA, as opposed to public arts funding in general. An independent arts consultant, Zeigler tells a straightforward story emphasizing the controversial years since 1989. Writer Garrison Keillor provides a delightful foreword, "Thanks for Attacking the NEA," adapted from remarks he delivered at a 1990 Senate subcommittee hearing. Among other important points, he drolly observes: "The Endowment has changed the way we think about the arts. Today, no American family can be secure against the danger that one of its children may decide to become an artist."(2)

Zeigler begins with a brief history of federal arts policy before the 1960s, followed by an overview of the NEA'S founding and subsequent history through the 1980s. He then recounts in greater detail what has happened since the current crisis began with the hullabaloo over Andres Serrano's photograph, Piss Christ (1987). Subsequent controversies, most notably over Robert Mapplethorpe and the so-called NEA Four (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller), are also recounted, as is the unwilling departure of hapless John Frohnmayer, NEA chair from 1989 to early 1992. …