Magazine article Insight on the News

NEA's New Lease on Life

Magazine article Insight on the News

NEA's New Lease on Life

Article excerpt

The National Endowment for the Arts' survival no longer seems in doubt. Indeed, its new leader has established an easy rapport with the agency's leading critic, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

What a difference a year makes. The National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA, was in a seeming death spiral last fall, its allies in the Senate fighting to secure $98 million -- a blip in the federal budget -- for the beleaguered arts agency.

All that has changed, according to William J. Ivey, NEA's new chairman. The agency may be returning to its halcyon days of plentiful funding and congressional support, he predicted in his first major speech since Congress approved him in May.

"Ninety-eight million dollars just isn't enough," he said during a National Press Club luncheon in September. "Increasing that number substantially will be one of my highest priorities as chairman."

Ivey also hopes to re-store the controversial individual artist grants, which Congress cut. Legislators were incensed by NEA funds going to support performances artists such as Karen Finley, who smears her nude body with chocolate, and Ron Athey, who sent sheets of AIDS-infected blood over the heads of an audience in an NEA-funded theater. If future individual grants raise a similar outcry, Ivey said, they should "never again challenge the existence of the entire agency [but] be dealt with as an individual problem."

It has been a rough decade for the NEA, which has been in a low-level war with Congress about grants deemed by some to be obscene or sacrilegious. In 1995, the agency's $175 million budget was cut by 39 percent to $99.5 million, causing 89 staffers -- nearly half at the agency -- to be laid off. The House voted to zero out the agency's budget last summer, although the Senate rescued it at the last moment.

The NEA's fortunes have risen wit the appointment of Ivey, "a Southern voice in the arts spectrum," as the former Nashville resident describes himself. A House attempt to again cut NEA funding foundered badly. Now the Senate is considering raising the NEA's budget to $100 million.

"It'll be the first endowment increase in eight long years," said Ivey. …

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