WASHINGTON — Washington -- When Illinois Rep. Philip M. Crane tried last month to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts -- just as he's tried to do for the past four years -- his proposal was voted down by a handy margin.
But the conservative Republican garnered 20 more votes than he had last year, and 40 more than he'd received the year before that.
"At this rate," he smiled and told his Democratic adversary, NEA-supporter Rep. Sidney R. Yates of Illinois, "in another five years, we've gotcha!"
Not so fast, Mr. Yates, one of the agency's congressional founders, is saying.
But having taken a beating by conservatives in recent years over its funding of controversial art -- an attack that continues to gather steam -- the NEA knows it must mount a new offensive and erase its "dirty pictures" image if it's going to prove Mr. Crane wrong.
With roots in the 1989 furor over federally-funded homo-erotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and works by Andres Serrano denounced as sacrilegious, controversy continues to hang over the NEA.
Heading straight for the hot seat again -- debate over funding and reauthorization looms on Capitol Hill next month along with the confirmation hearings for nominee Jane Alexander as chairwoman -- the 28-year-old NEA, with help from the arts community, has geared up to begin taking control of its image.
And so has the opposition.
"There's some real serious work this agency has got to do," said an NEA official who asked not to be identified. "The Clinton administration is going to be the barometer of whether the agency is going to exist or not."
One NEA supporter, Robert Lynch, executive director of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, agrees that the agency is moving into a critical, perhaps decisive, season.
The endowment's reversal yesterday of a Bush administration decision to deny funds to three gay and lesbian film festivals appears to be a step in a new direction.
"The agency has a great opportunity to totally reposition itself -- and I think it needs to," says Mr. Lynch. "It will be facing continuing, mounting problems unless that image is turned around. And it now has an opportunity that can be either positive or controversial."
Conservatives -- including a Christian right group and members of Congress -- are doing their best to keep the controversial label alive, hitting on two fronts: economic, suggesting there's no room for an arts endowment in this time of mounting deficit and debt; and content, arguing that taxpayers are funding offensive or anti-Christian images.
The NEA -- whose annual budget last year was $175 million, or about one-fifth of one guided-missile destroyer -- is trying to counter those charges by talking up its educational programs, children's programs, projects that bring the arts to the disabled, the elderly, the inner cities and rural areas, and its projects that have economically revitalized communities.
And it plans to respond to attacks in a way it rarely did during the Bush administration, when the outcry over a handful of controversial grants caused Congress to pass restrictions requiring NEA grant recipients to adhere to "general standards of decency."
Even so, in the battle of images it is clearly an uphill fight. The agency awards about 4,000 grants a year totaling about $153 million. In Maryland, for instance, the NEA's quarterly awards last month included more than $500,000 to a variety of arts organizations and institutions -- everything from Center Stage and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to the Maryland State Arts Council for arts projects in under-served communities.
But there's also the NEA-funded project near San Diego, in which three artists handed out $10 bills to illegal immigrants to illustrate the immigrants' role in the economy, that landed on the front page of the New York Times last week.
"This is outrageous," wrote Republican Rep. Randy Cunningham California, one of the 105 who voted to eliminate the NEA this year, in a letter to the endowment. "I can scarcely imagine a more contemptuous use of taxpayers' hard-earned dollars."
An NEA spokesman said the agency's audit staff is now reviewing the way that money, part of a $5,000 grant awarded in 1989 to the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, is being spent.
Such publicity is "very damaging," admits arts executive Mr. Lynch. "No matter how plausible or positive this is as a conceptual piece, it just doesn't come across that way. And I guarantee it comes across less positively on the floor of Congress."
In fact, much of the battle of images is focused on Congress, with the endowment sending packets of information about valuable NEA-funded projects in each member's state or district, while its opponents send whatever examples they can find of questionable grants.
Last month, after voting 322 to 105 against eliminating the NEA, the House did vote 240 to 184 to cut NEA funding by 5 percent from $174.9 million to $166.2 million. (The Senate, where such critics as Jesse Helms stand ready to attack, will take up the issue again after its August recess).
The new members of Congress, who voted in similar proportions to the whole body, were a particular target, especially for the conservative groups like the Christian Action Network, which blanketed them with information about government-funded art it called blasphemous and degrading.
"The attack came up very fast and at the end," says Mr. Lynch, "and hit a lot of new members of Congress. We weren't fast enough."
The Christian network followed up its mailing last month with a display on Capitol Hill of photographs of controversial artwork from an "Abject Art" exhibit at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, suggesting the exhibit was funded by the NEA.
But the NEA made sure it had representatives at the exhibit to distribute "Myth vs. Fact" sheets, and to explain to reporters and congressional staffers who came to see the show that while an NEA grant was awarded to the Whitney, the "Abject Art" exhibit was privately funded.
"When the special interests do distort, the agency is going to respond back by setting the record straight," said NEA spokeswoman Ginny Terzano.
The Christian network display was shut down nearly as soon as it was put up in congressional meeting rooms, but the network president, Martin Mawyer, says he now plans to take his show to state capitals all over the country. "Our concept is, if they won't let us show this in Washington, let's take our case to the American public."
Groups such as the Christian network and the American Family Association admit the anti-NEA crusade is a potent fund-raising tool for them, although not nearly as profitable an issue as gays in military.
With a louder voice at the heart of the endowment's new offensive, the NEA is relying in part on the appointment of Ms. Alexander, a distinguished, serious-minded actress who leaves behind a warm, adoring spotlight for the glare of one of the most acrimonious battles in town, to help regain its footing.
"She brings prestige at a time the NEA can use it," says Mr. Yates.
Ms. Terzano says the new chairwoman, who if confirmed would succeed the Bush-appointed and Bush-ousted John Frohnmayer, is likely to go into towns and communities to explain to the public how the agency's work pays off economically and creatively and is a part of their lives.
But while lending credibility, distinction and glamour to the endowment as the first artist ever to serve as the agency's chair, Ms. Alexander's appointment also gives opponents another line of attack.
"I don't like the idea of Hollywood being in control of the NEA," says Mr. Mawyer. "It's a perception thing. I'd rather see someone the American people can relate to, someone who has the interest of the taxpayer in mind rather than coming from an established arts community that makes money from pushing the limits of arts mores."
Still, the actress, who starred in "The Sisters Rosensweig" which closed earlier this month on Broadway, is said to be highly-respected and admired on starstruck Capitol Hill, where she's testified twice on behalf of the NEA.
The arts community is rallying around the nomination -- and the agency -- doing its share of lobbying on the Hill and getting involved in grass-roots politics to help the NEA make its case.
But perhaps most important, the National Cultural Alliance, a coalition of 45 arts and humanities organizations, has organized a $25 million nationwide campaign of print and TV ads for the fall that will stress the connection between the arts and humanities and Americans' everyday lives. It also has declared October as "Arts and Humanities Month," with 33 governors signing on so far.
The NEA official knows that even with all this help, it will be a struggle to resurrect the endowment's once-sterling image. "I don't think we've seen the full thrust of what the special interests can and will do once the chair is in place in the next year."