Who Will Head the NEA? the National Endowment for the Arts Has Announced More Than $60 Million in Grants, but the Agency Is without a Leader. the Bush Team Wants to Hire a Conservative Republican. (Arts)

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The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a sometimes-beleaguered federal arts agency that Congress nearly zeroed out several years ago, still is looking for a leader. Michael P. Hammond, dean of Rice University School of Music in Houston, was nominated for the job last fall but died unexpectedly just after moving to Washington in January. Edward Moy, an associate director in the White House personnel office, is conducting the search to replace Hammond.

Judging from similar appointments -- those of Hammond and Bruce Cole, director of NEA's sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) -- the Bush administration is seeking someone in his 60s, well-connected on the conservative/Republican circuit and with impressive academic credentials. "What we want is somebody who really has broad experience in the arts," says Bob Lynch of Americans for the Arts, a lobbying group for 4,000 local arts councils nationwide. "Ideally, he or she would have multi-arts experience and understand the overall system of support for arts in America, which is a complex ecosystem of public and private arts support. Public support is 10 percent of the puzzle, but the effect of public money in leveraging other support has been huge."

The American Arts Alliance, which represents 2,600 nonprofit arts groups, suggested in a Jan. 31 letter to Moy that the new NEA chairman possess some expertise in the performing arts, be sensitive to the needs of artists and nonprofit arts groups, be an articulate and persuasive political strategist and have a vision as to how the arts can advance American interests around the world. Steve Balch of the National Association of Scholars in Princeton, N.J., says the director should be either an artist or someone who has the administrative knowledge to manage a federal agency, and must be able to defend the NEA budget at congressional hearings.

The appointee also would need good relations with House Republicans, who in July 1997 voted to defund the NEA because of arts grants deemed pornographic, religiously insensitive or just plain offensive. Today, the NEA has a $115.2 million annual budget and appears to have ascended from the basement of congressional opinion.

That move was the work of Bill Ivey, the NEA chairman who took over from Jane Alexander in May 1998. He persuaded Republican skeptics that publicly funded art was in the country's best interest and recruited several members of Congress to sit on the NEA Council, which determines who receives arts grants. Fifty-five percent of all applications to the NEA receive funding, compared with 17 percent of all applications to the NEH.

Among those mentioned to head the NEA are Dean Anderson, a former Smithsonian administrator and recently retired deputy director for planning and management at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Stephanie French, formerly vice president of corporate contributions and cultural programs at Philip Morris Co. …