Although legislation pending in Congress could effectively eliminate her agency's role later this year, Jane Alexander, chairwoman of the National Endowment of the Arts, says arts supporters can count on one thing: "The artists always have the last word."
On a visit to Baltimore yesterday, she said that she remains optimistic that the federal agency, which provides support to a variety of arts institutions and individuals, will survive.
"I am still an optimist, because the arts are life-giving . . . and the arts are needed in society more than ever," she told a luncheon session of the Association of Art Museum Directors, whose annual meeting has been taking place this week at the Walters Art Gallery.
The audience gave the actress, 55, a standing ovation.
Meeting with reporters after the speech, she said too much of the debate over NEA funds rests on ignorance of the scope and importance of the arts.
"We have more than 1.3 million people in the United States who make their living as artists. . . . That's a huge aggregate. It's more than agriculture, it's more than lawyers, I think it's more than our police forces combined," she said.
"And think of all the patrons of the arts. More people attend nonprofit arts activities than all professional sporting events combined," she added.
Ms. Alexander was named to her post in October 1993 by President Clinton. Since then, she has visited all 50 states and Puerto Rico to see NEA-supported institutions and individuals.
In January 1994, she toured the Baltimore School for the Arts and the Maryland Historical Society, and in January of this year she spoke in Annapolis at Maryland Arts Day, a biannual rally sponsored by Maryland Citizens for the Arts.
Also in January this year, testifying before the Senate Labor and Human Resoures Committee, Ms. Alexander said her travels showed her that American taxpayers do not begrudge the small cost of the NEA, which she estimated as just 64 cents a year per taxpayer.
Yet in yesterday's speech, she said legislation in the House of Representatives, proposed by Republican Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, would phase out NEA grant funding in three years -- lopping 40 percent for fiscal 1996, 40 percent in 1997 and a final 20 percent in 1998.
Administrative funding would be frozen at $5 million annually. "This would have the net effect of killing the Arts Endowment as we know it by October 1 of this year," she said.
"Things are a bit more hopeful in the Senate," she said, where a bill sponsored by Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, would re-authorize funding for the NEA at least through the year 2000, at a slowly reducing level, from $158.8 million for fiscal 1996 to $146.4 million in fiscal 2000. Its budget now is about $167 million.
According to Ms. Alexander, some in Congress say the dialogue over the NEA has changed from discussions over sometimes controversial grants to become "ostensibly about the budget."
She suggested that many congressional representatives "frankly aren't in touch with the art that is going on in their local communities. They may be in touch with loud voices that object to the art. . . . Many of them have not seen the work, and they rely on hearsay, and they rely on things out of context."
The NEA does have friends. Ms. Alexander counts first lady Hillary Clinton as someone "extremely interested in this, particularly in arts education and children. She sees the value of art in the life of a child."
And, she said, "I know from having been with the president at the Kennedy Center how much that he's interested, too."