Sed Contra: Funding Imagination

Deal W. Hudson
May 1, 2004

Conservatives, by and large, don’t trust the arts. The suspicion goes back to four centuries before Christ when Plato famously argued that the passions awakened by artists were a threat to the state.

In 1965 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was created, along with its sister, the National Endowment for the Humanities, as part of the Great Society legislation of Lyndon Johnson. Its modest budget grew to $175.9 million in 1992 under George H. W. Bush. Then came the catastrophes of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photos, Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” and Karen Finley, the female performance artist who likes to coat her naked body in chocolate.

The 1995 Contract with America, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, targeted the NEA with drastic cuts and eventual extinction. In 1996, the NEA budget was cut to $99 million. The House voted to eliminate the agency altogether, but the Senate brokered a deal that saved the NEA by cutting its board to 14 members, adding six congressmen as watchdogs, and mandating significant grant restrictions.

The restrictions—intended to avoid any repetition of the scandals—limited the NEA to funding companies rather than individual artists (with the exception of writers) and specific programs rather than entire seasons. In addition, companies receiving funding cannot pass it on to an artist or company; and no more than 15 percent of NEA funds can go to any one state.

The NEA has learned from its mistakes, and more importantly, it has a new chairman—Dana Gioia who has already instituted new programs that justify both the existence of the NEA and President George W. Bush’s request for an increase in funding from $121 million to $139.4 million.

The centerpiece of Gioia’s vision for the NEA is the program that he started more than a year ago, “Shakespeare in American Communities.” This is the largest tour of Shakespearean plays in American history. Seven acting companies are touring all 50 states, performing in more than 100 small and midsize towns. An educational booklet on how to teach Shakespeare is being distributed for free by the NEA to more than 25,000 teachers from a Web site, http://www.shakespeareinamerican communities.org. The most innovative aspect of the program is its partnership with the Department of Defense, which kicked in $1 million so that the plays could be performed on 16 military bases to service personnel, their families, and their schoolchildren. The plays are well-chosen: Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Richard II, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Gioia has taken a 20-year-old NEA award, the NEA Jazz Masters, and has given it much greater visibility. A recent event at a music educator’s conference in New York City honoring jazz greats was filmed by the Black Entertainment Television network for airing in the spring.

Of the $18 million increase for 2005, $15 million has been earmarked for a project that, I believe, is desperately needed—”American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius.” This three-year project will do for the best of American art and culture what the NEA is doing for Shakespeare: Take it to the American people. The first year will feature dance, choral music, and the visual arts, with literature, music, and other arts being featured in the remaining years.

I applaud the opportunity, for example, for my teenage daughter to see the Martha Graham Dance Company perform the original choreography to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It will take repeated exposure to powerful works of art from the likes of Graham, Copland, and Andrew Wyeth to convince a generation of teenagers that there’s more to music, dance, and visual arts than what they see on MTV.

Critics either try to make the NEA an emblem of fiscal irresponsibility, when its present budget is 0.0052 percent of the federal budget, or they assume that NEA funding is inevitably given to American-hating, conservative-baiting artists. But the culture has changed at the NEA, and this change benefits all of us.

“Ripeness is all,” says Edgar in King Lear, and America is ready for a rebirth of the arts. Dana Gioia has a vision and an administrative gift that deserves our support.

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