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