The stroke of a pen

The Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts chose its own path for fund­ing artists; now the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to elim­i­nate the agency.

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Hil­lel Italie

When the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts was es­tab­lished in 1965, or­ga­niz­ers had dif­fer­ent mod­els to choose from. They could have looked to the French Min­istry of Cul­ture, a Cabi­net-level in­sti­tu­tion com­mit­ted to main­tain­ing France’s cul­tural her­itage. Or they could have copied the gen­er­ous and gov­ern­ment-di­rected sup­port fa­vored by some Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries, or even the state-con­trolled art of their Cold War ri­vals: the Soviet Union and China.

But the NEA, which the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to elim­i­nate along with Le­gal Ser­vices Corp., the In­sti­tute of Mu­seum and Li­brary Ser­vices and dozens of other agen­cies and pro­grams, de­vel­oped in uniquely Amer­i­can fash­ion: di­verse and in­de­pen­dent, with a sig­nif­i­cant part of the bud­get dis­trib­uted to state and lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions. It also col­lab­o­rates with non­profit and pri­vate donors.

“Our sys­tem is quite dif­fer­ent from any of the other coun­tries’,” says Robert L. Lynch, pres­i­dent and CEO of the non­profit Amer­i­cans for the Arts, which leads a net­work of or­ga­ni­za­tions and in­di­vid­u­als in­volved in the arts. “Most of the other coun­tries use a sub­sidy sys­tem with few or any other sources of fund­ing.”

“I love the NEA model be­cause it was founded on a gov­ern­ment-pri­vate giv­ing sys­tem, and noth­ing suc­ceeds like hav­ing buy-in from the var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties,” says ac­tress Jane Alexan­der, who served as NEA chair­woman from 1993-97. “I’m a res­i­dent of Canada. And while there’s a lot of sup­port for the arts, it can be hard to get a project off the ground be­cause there’s not a lot of in­cen­tive for pri­vate giv­ing.”

From the begin­ning, the en­dow­ment was rooted in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. It was founded when faith in gov­ern­ment was high and when ad­vo­cat­ing for the arts was a pop­u­lar po­si­tion for an elected of­fi­cial. Demo­cratic Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son, elected in a land­slide in 1964, had strong pub­lic back­ing to ful­fill the goals of the assassinated John F. Kennedy. And the eco­nomic ex­pan­sion of the post-World War II era had led to a grow­ing ap­petite for self­im­prove­ment and in­creased money and leisure time for artis­tic in­ter­ests.

“There wasn’t this feel­ing we needed to res­cue the arts,” says Mark Bauer­lein, an English pro­fes­sor at Emory Univer­sity and a for­mer NEA of­fi­cial who helped write and edit an NEA his­tory that cov­ered the en­dow­ment’s years from 1965-2008. “We hear that now a lot, but the orig­i­nal point was more along the lines of we have the mo­men­tum and we should take it to the next level.”

Dana Gioia, who led the NEA from 200309, says the en­dow­ment has man­aged to use rel­a­tively lit­tle money to build a na­tion­wide arts net­work. But the NEA has en­dured con­tentious mo­ments, rooted in a long-term de­bate over how and whether gov­ern­ments should fund the arts. Con­ser­va­tives have ob­jected to some of the art be­ing sup­ported — no­tably graphic photographs by Robert Map­plethorpe and a hand­ful of other works in the 1980s — and ar­gued that the gov­ern­ment shouldn’t in-

ter­fere in the mar­ket­place. Some on the left have wor­ried that ac­cept­ing money from the gov­ern­ment risked com­pro­mis­ing one’s vi­sion, es­pe­cially af­ter the NEA be­gan ask­ing grant re­cip­i­ents to sign a “de­cency” clause in the wake of the Map­plethorpe con­tro­versy.

A 1963 re­port com­mis­sioned by the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion, “The Arts and the Na­tional Gov­ern­ment,” ac­knowl­edged that “There will al­ways re­main those who feel that art and gov­ern­ment should ex­ist in dif­fer­ent spheres, hav­ing noth­ing to do with each other.”

“Al­though gov­ern­ment’s role in the arts must al­ways re­main pe­riph­eral, with in- di­vid­ual cre­ativ­ity and pri­vate sup­port be­ing cen­tral, there is no rea­son why the things which the gov­ern­ment can prop­erly do in this field should not be done con­fi­dently and ex­pertly,” the re­port reads.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment has had a spo­radic re­la­tion­ship with the cul­tural com­mu­nity.

While Thomas Jef­fer­son and other founders had strong be­liefs in the value of art, there were long pe­ri­ods when Wash­ing­ton had lit­tle in­volve­ment, es­pe­cially in the 19th cen­tury. In the 1930s, New Deal of­fi­cials es­tab­lished the Works Project Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which sup­ported ev­ery­thing from mu­rals and theatri­cal pro­duc­tions to his­tor­i­cal guide­books. But the WPA was based more on job cre­ation than on cul­tural pa­tron­age. “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other peo­ple,” New Deal ad­min­is­tra­tor Harry Hop­kins said of artists who ben­e­fited.

The 1963 gov­ern­ment re­port cited nu­mer­ous ways a na­tional agency was needed. In­ter­est in the arts was grow­ing through­out the coun­try. But many re­gions re­mained un­der­served, and lo­cal cul­tural cen­ters lacked money and co­or­di­na­tion with cen­ters else­where. And Wash­ing­ton’s sup­port for the arts was cen­tered on the cap­i­tal it­self. “Stim­u­lat­ing and sup­port­ing the arts through­out the coun­try” would be an ideal mis­sion for a new fed­eral pro­gram.

Bauer­lein, Gioia and oth­ers who have served at the NEA wish the sys­tem could be funded bet­ter — France and Ger­many and other coun­tries spend far more per capita than the U.S. on the arts — but con­sider it prac­ti­cal and ef­fec­tive. Grants have been dis­trib­uted to all con­gres­sional dis­tricts, sup­port­ing projects from com­mu­nity the­aters to the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute, and even con­ser­va­tives such as Trump sup­porter Mike Huck­abee want the NEA saved. And an in­sti­tu­tion such as the French min­istry might con­flict with the NEA’s mis­sion to honor the coun­try’s “mul­ti­cul­tural artis­tic her­itage.”

“France seems to have a more uni­fied sense of French cul­ture, while the U.S. is a larger and more di­verse na­tion,” says Donna Binkiewicz, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity-Long Beach.

“It would be more dif­fi­cult to or­ga­nize such an ef­fort here. I also don’t think we have the po­lit­i­cal will for such an en­ter­prise. The NEA now func­tions as an ... agency dis­tribut­ing money to states in a way that seems more ac­cept­able for Amer­i­cans.”

A work of art by Nari Ward is ex­hib­ited along the High Line this month in New York City. The High Line, a pop­u­lar pedes­trian space that spon­sors works of art an­nu­ally, gets some of its fund­ing for such projects from the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts, which Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump wants to elim­i­nate all fund­ing for in his newly re­leased bud­get. Spencer Platt, Getty Images

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