The Future of the National Endowment for the Arts

Article excerpt

Last November, the Democratic National Committee asked New York gallerist Ronald Feldman to submit documents to the transition team of President-Elect Bill Clinton in support of the National Endowment for the Arts. To write the proposal Feldman enlisted Maurice Berger, a frequent contributor to Artforum. The proposal, which we are happy to publish below, was sent to the president-elect in early December with supporting signatures representing a broad spectrum of the nation's cultural communities.

Over the past 12 years, our country has faced a serious crisis as a powerful minority of religious and political activists has attempted to stifle cultural freedom. For artists and other cultural figures, no form of interference has been more dramatic than the destructive limitations imposed on the National Endowment for the Arts since 1981. During the past decade, the NEA, an organization established to further the availability and excellence of the arts in the United States, has been under attack, its programs and awards subject to arbitrary acts of censorship and repression. The Endowment's own history--a political legacy of difficult birth in the 1960s, extraordinary bipartisan support under the Johnson, Nixon, and Carter administrations, and near destruction in recent years--suggests the important, even heroic role of government funding of the arts. We need only be reminded of the impassioned 1964 Senate speech in which Hubert Humphrey, arguing for the creation of the Endowment, declared art "the rock foundation of every society," or of President Johnson's heralding of the NEA and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities, as exemplars of the post-New Deal empowerment ethos. We believe that the new president will need to show strong leadership in championing the arts, reaffirming the crucial mission of the NEA, and assuring the nation of a free and open culture.

We ask the president-elect to consider the following proposals for the future of the National Endowment for the Arts:

1 ISSUE A POLICY STATEMENT SUPPORTING THE NEA.

The president should issue a policy statement that calls for the reauthorization and full funding of the NEA and reaffirms the Democratic Party platform position: "We believe in public support for the arts, including a National Endowment for the Arts that is free from political manipulation and firmly rooted in the First Amendment's freedom of expression guarantee."

2 OPPOSE POLITICAL MANIPULATION OF THE ENDOWMENT.

We believe that the president should reaffirm the primacy of the peer-review system and should strongly oppose any content restrictions in the granting of NEA funds. The administration must fight political manipulation of the agency by Congress or the Endowment chair, including, but not limited to, the unilateral vetoing of grants approved by peer panels and the National Council on the Arts. The president should appoint a strong and knowledgeable Endowment chairperson who will be a forceful advocate for the arts at the executive, legislative, and public levels. The decision to terminate grants to art critics--a blatantly political act that represents one of the first "Gag Rules" of the Reagan/Bush years--should be reversed. We believe that reinstating these grants would not only affirm the significance of art criticism but would constitute an important symbolic gesture, a sign of the administration's dedication to free and open discourse in the United States.

3 REESTABLISH ACTIVE COMMUNICATION WITH STATE AND LOCAL ARTS COMMUNITIES.

To aid the process of healing from the wounds of a decade of censorship and repression, the Endowment should help strengthen local arts agencies and continue to hold regular meetings with constituent groups around the country in an effort to learn about the special needs of the visual- and performing-arts communities. In order to ensure a less insulated bureaucracy at the NEA, we believe that the agency should adhere to the policy of selecting program heads on the basis of competitive applications and merit rather than by unilateral appointment by the Endowment chairperson. …