I Hear America Singing: The Arts Will Flower without the NEA

Article excerpt

The death knell is sounding for the National Endowment for the Arts. The agen- cy's federal appropriation last year fell by one-third, from about $150 mil- lion to about $100 million, and its appropriation may be cut again or even eliminated in the current session of Congress. The NEA is not only anathema to cultural conservatives, libertarians, evangelical Christians, and even a good number of artists. It is also likely to lose key political support as Presi- dent Clinton and other Democrats resolve to keep moving toward a balanced fed- eral budget without compromising Medicare, Medicaid, education, or the environment.

But the end of the agency's federal funding need not prove cataclysmic for the arts in America. Artists, arts organizations, and their supporters have many strategies at their disposal for maintaining the vitality of the arts in a post-NEA era. And in any case, the importance of federal grantmaking to the arts has been greatly exaggerated.

The NEA currently contributes to the arts in two ways: direct funding and less tangible, indirect services. Nowadays direct funding consists almost entirely of cash awards to arts organizations and event sponsors. (As of 1996, grants to individual artists were eliminated, except for creative writers, jazz greats, and masters of folk crafts.) NEA-financed music ensembles, dance festivals, museum exhibitions, and the like undoubtedly face a period of sacrifice and uncertainty, and there will be some casualties. But their prospects are far from hopeless.

The NEA also renders indirect, noncash benefits and services through its peer-review panels. Their judgments can stimulate funding from other sources and identify certain artists and organizations as more deserving than others. In this realm of power-by-imprimatur, the judgment process would, in fact, probably work better if it were decentralized and used to spur greater involvement by funders.

Making up the Shortfall

To understand the reasons for optimism, it is necessary to assess the true nature of NEA spending priorities. The NEA's largesse regularly benefits the great established urban institutions and smaller local organizations of long-standing reputation. The NEA has also funded, less dependably, dozens of marginal artistic groups, some of which claim to depend on NEA funding for their survival. As a rule, the larger institutions will overcome the NEA's decline easily, but the smaller ones need not suffer if they heed certain examples set around the country.

One might not know it from the political controversies that have attracted public attention, but the NEA has always favored the most venerable -- and richest -- cultural establishments over the esoteric, the shocking, and the avant-garde. A survey of funding patterns in 1985, 1990, and 1995 clearly reveals this preference. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City has been the single largest recipient of NEA funds, with annual grants between $800,000 and $900,000. Typical grants for other high-profile beneficiaries range from $200,000 to $350,000, awarded year after year and now incorporated into annual budgets. In theater, by far the biggest ongoing grants go to the major presenters and training centers, such as the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts ($305,000, on average, in 1985, 1990, and 1995), the Center Theater Group of Los Angeles ($251,000), the Guthrie Theater in Min- neapolis ($274,000), and the Yale Repertory Theatre ($167,000).

In the museum world, the consistent winners are big-city institutions: Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco. In dance as well, the NEA has heavily favored the most established organizations. The Dance Theatre of Harlem, for example, averaged $303,000. Nearly all other troupes with six-figure grants bear the names of modern American legends: Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp.

This preference for elite establishments should not be surprising, since it is usually the larger, wealthier institutions that have the staff and resources to put together winning grant proposals. …