Gingrich & Co. Keep Bead on Arts Endowment WASHINGTON CURRENTS NEA FUNDING SINCE MAPPLETHORPE

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This spring the 105th Congress and the Clinton administration are wrangling over a matter that arouses passion in both liberals and conservatives.

The matter is art - specifically, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The endowment was founded in 1965 to financially assist projects and people - from museums, operas, and regional theaters to painters, poets, and other creative writers.

The Clinton administration, its congressional allies, and liberals in general want to increase the endowment budget, which the Republican House chopped - from $136 million in 1995 to $99 million for '96 and '97. Republican conservatives in the House - and, to a lesser degree, the Senate - are hoping to kill off the NEA. Hearings over the next two weeks should reveal what the future holds. New grants The pared-down arts-agency budget meant a sharp reduction in the first phase of 1997 grants, announced April 10. The 736 new grants for about $67 million account for 79 percent of the endowment's grantmaking for this fiscal year. A total of 494 grants for $23.5 million were given to organizations fostering new works. They include Ohio's Canton Symphony Orchestra, an exhibit of native American art at Seattle's Sacred Circle Gallery, and the Madison Opera for a program that brings opera to Wisconsin communities and elementary schools. About 27 percent of the grants and 21 percent of the dollars went to New York groups. Of these, the Whitney Museum of American Art (see above) received a $400,000 matching grant - which means the museum must raise $5 for every $1 from the NEA. Nearly $30 million will be distributed to communities in the 50 states for Partnership grants. The present battle over the NEA began with the 1994 midterm elections, when the Republicans seized control of Congress. GOP newcomers had campaigned on pledges to cut federal spending, thereby reducing the size of the deficit-ridden government and ultimately balancing the budget. They were promises the freshmen GOP members - who quickly earned the collective sobriquet, "Republican revolutionaries" - meant to keep. Among hundreds of other targets for budget cutting, the NEA stood out like a diamond in a coal scuttle. The year before, President Clinton had appointed the distinguished actress Jane Alexander to head the NEA. It was a shrewd choice; Ms. Alexander is a widely known and admired performer on the stage, in television, and movies. She has the patience and empathy of a seasoned diplomat. The Senate confirmed her unanimously. 'Pornography posing as art' The NEA had in recent years drawn thunderbolts of political wrath over projects it helped underwrite. In 1988, the agency awarded a grant to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia for a retrospective show of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The show moved to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, where its homoerotic pictures aroused the fury of many members of Congress. The NEA was accused of spending taxpayers' money on pornography posing as art. The Corcoran exhibition was closed. Chairman Alexander began touring the country in 1994. In lectures and project inspections she de-emphasized avant-garde art and stressed the rich mixture of regional American arts, crafts, and performances. …