Washington. -- When the Academy Awards were broadcast last month, Hollywood's biggest stars and moguls took advantage of the ceremony to try to rally public support for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Everyone knows the NEA supports major institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as folk artists, symphonies, dance and Shakespeare companies.
But Arthur Hiller, president of the academy, did not go into details when he began the most-watched, prime-time, family-oriented television show of the year with a political call to arms. Nor did he refer to the endowment's penchant for validating the bizarre, such as ritual torture and body carving from HIV-positive performance artist Ron Athey, or the "Piss Christ" photograph by Andres Serrano, recently on display at the New Museum in New York.
The previous month, Michael Greene, head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, made a similar pitch at the Grammy awards, giving an 800 number.
Mr. Greene said, "Folks, without arts education and the arts endowment, music and the love of it will no longer be a cultural treasure, but more and more a privilege tied to personal, family and class economics."
Charlton Heston flew to Washington to testify before Congress TC on behalf of continued funding for the NEA, and country music phenomenon Garth Brooks came to the Capitol to personally lobby House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But this flurry of pro-NEA lobbying is unseemly, to say the least. For if movie and record moguls really want to fund the NEA, they are perfectly able to do so without a penny of taxpayer money. Under current law the NEA is permitted to accept private contributions of any size -- even millions of dollars.
Not long ago, Barbra Streisand told a Harvard audience that the entertainment industry is a $340 billion-a-year enterprise.
Ms. Streisand makes $52 million of that herself, according to Forbes. Oprah Winfrey earns $53 million, Harrison Ford $27 million and Kevin Costner $15 million. Last year Tom Hanks made $15 million, but with the Oscar for "Forrest Gump," he is expected to make $30 million this year.
How big are the businesses involved? Edgar Bronfman Jr. is willing to spend $5.7 billion to buy MCA and Universal Studios. Each of the major networks has revenues in the neighborhood of $3 billion annually. Disney chairman Michael Eisner has earned $300 million in pay packages since 1984 and has another $600 million coming in profits on his stock. Garth Brooks reportedly sells $100 million worth of recordings annually.
Stephen Spielberg makes $165 million a year, Forbes magazine says. Recently, he hosted 100 top Hollywood figures who paid $50,000 a couple to meet with President Clinton at his home, raising more than $2 million for the Democratic Party.
This level of financial success, combined with proved fund-raising ability and interest in the arts -- record producer David Geffen and super agent Mike Ovitz of CAA are among the biggest art collectors in the United States today and Sylvester Stallone collects French Impressionists -- makes Hollywood the logical substitute funder for the NEA, especially given Chairman Jane Alexander's claim that Hollywood benefits from the training and experience the NEA provides young talent. (Mr. Geffen, by the way, just donated $5 million to my alma mater, the School of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles -- headed by Oscar broadcast producer Gil Cates -- to pay for a new playhouse.)
The annual budget for the agency is $167 million. This is little more than lunch money for Hollywood studios. A single picture like Mr. Spielberg's "Hook" can easily cost $100 million.
Privatization of the NEA in this manner would be easy to accomplish. Congress simply needs to permit the NEA's federal authorization to expire.
The agency could then reorganize as a private not-for-profit corporation under the laws of the District of Columbia, and appoint advocates like Mr. Hiller, Martin Landau and Quincy Jones (who were also on the Oscar show pitching) to a reconstituted board of directors.
Without the need for Senate confirmation and the obligatory investigations of the private lives of nominees, many more prominent artists and performers might be willing to serve as members of the board. With a prominent board of megastars, the NEA could then solicit contributions and give grants freely to artists of its own choosing.
Such a change would end the NEA as a federal program and truly insulate the arts from political interference.
But perhaps Hollywood and the recording industry don't truly like or care enough about the NEA to pay for it. Like many rich people, they might prefer using public money to subsidize their private tastes. It's easier and cheaper to make a noble-sounding speech.
Laurence Jarvik is editor of "The National Endowments: A Critical Symposium" and Washington director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. He wrote this commentary for Newsday.