WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Were it all to unfold according to script, the curtain would soon be falling on the National Endowment for the Arts.
Condemned as a tool of liberals and elitists and a champion of taxpayer-financed pornography, the arts endowment was a gleaming bull's-eye for the cost-cutting conservatives of the last Congress. Two years ago, Republican leaders vowed to wipe out any trace of it by this fall.
But today, because of shifting political winds and an arts community that learned to campaign with sophistication and a sprinkling of stardust, the death scene hardly seems certain.
In fact, Congress has extended so much goodwill to the endowment recently that conservatives face an uphill battle to kill it. And as it becomes embroiled in the budget battle on Capitol Hill, an agency so tiny that its place in the federal budget can barely be seen with the naked eye is taking on enormous importance.
The $99 million agency -- cut from $168 million in 1994 -- has become a symbol of the split between moderates and conservatives, a microcosm of the debate over government's role and, if the conservatives have their way, a litmus test for lawmakers.
"This is make-or-break time for the leadership," said Robert Knight, director of cultural studies at the Family Research Council, which opposes the NEA. "It will tell us if they can keep any promises at all to the voters. If they now go back on their promise, it will mean a complete retreat and a sign that the leadership wasn't serious about truly trying to control government growth."
Opposition less fervent
With such a gantlet being thrown down by conservatives, the NEA's survival is nowhere near assured. But there is much less fervor now to kill a 32-year-old agency that awards grants to cultural endeavors ranging from symphony orchestras to urban youth programs to avant-garde art.
Newt Gingrich had such a pleasant meeting with Alec Baldwin and his fellow celebrity NEA activists a few weeks ago that the House speaker invited them to join him for dinner this month. Another NEA opponent, Rep. Frank Riggs, a California Republican, said he only recently discovered that the endowment helped fund the Washington Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" that his daughter appeared in, and would now keep an open mind about federal funding of the arts.
And after cordial hearings in the House last month in which the NEA's chairwoman, actress Jane Alexander, urged further funding, Majority Leader Dick Armey said he did not think he had the votes to eliminate the agency.
"A lot of members of Congress are beginning to understand this is important to constituents," Alexander said in an interview. "Their constituents are beginning to make their voices heard."
Indeed, in many respects, the arts lobby's success in rallying support and turning around the mood in Congress is no surprise at all but rather an illustration of the staying power of federal programs.
"The NEA is a case study in how federal agencies take on a life of their own," said Marshall Wittmann, a lobbyist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Fighting for survival
For every program or agency, there is a special-interest group or constituency ready to spring into action whenever funding is threatened. In this case, that special interest rallied faster and with more spirit than in a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland barn production.
"They just got more aware that they needed to do what everybody else does in Washington when they want a piece of the federal pie -- go out and fight for it," said Dick Woodruff, the chief NEA lobbyist.
In the past two years, that fight has included old-fashioned visits, phone calls and telegrams to Congress, as well as such modern tools as political action committees, Internet sites and polling data.
"I think we will prevail," said Rep. Rick A. Lazio of New York, a moderate Republican who has taken the lead in defending the agency in the House. "But we will not prevail by happenstance or benign fortune."
After the 1994 election -- when newly elected conservatives in their zeal to shrink government vowed to "zero out" the NEA, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- arts organizers united to form the Cultural Advocacy Group. They set up an 800 number, which was announced on the Grammy Awards telecast and in ads in the New York Times, that people could call to have telegrams sent to members of Congress.
Robert Lynch, director of Americans for the Arts, an umbrella organization of local groups, said the effort produced 300,000 calls and telegrams to Capitol Hill in the past two years.
The NEA advocates armed their troops with "talking points" and polling data: The $36 billion nonprofit arts industry supports 1.3 million jobs and returns $3.4 billion to federal tax coffers each year; according to a Harris Poll, 57 percent of the public favors federal funding of arts; every NEA dollar leverages up to $12 more in private funding.
"This was the kind of hard data that was necessary," Lynch said.
Trying to shed the NEA's reputation as a supporter of cultural enterprises patronized mainly by the rich, advocates undertook a shrewd campaign to showcase the agency's importance to the arts in local communities -- including programs in hospitals, schools, senior centers and inner cities.
After last year's elections, they sent posters of their local ballet company/symphony/museum to new lawmakers, who faced bare walls in new Capitol Hill offices.
Arts lobbyists also looked for voices beyond the arts community to speak on their behalf, enlisting mayors, educators, business executives and police.
At a hearing last month, Eric Hathaway, deputy sheriff in Palm Beach, Fla., told a House Appropriations subcommittee that an after-school arts program, sponsored by a local NEA-funded museum, had helped cut crime there.
Some of the most influential voices are those of board members of NEA-backed arts groups. Lazio referred to these people, some of them political donors, as a "huge untapped resource." For example, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican, was urged by board members of the historic Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford to support the NEA, her spokesman said.
Perhaps most important, say some in the arts community, has been an end to their formerly defensive "us vs. them" posture.
"The art world made a career of what we now call elitism," says Susan Lubowsky Talbott, a former NEA official who is executive director of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C. "What we learned was we could no longer survive and be credible if we continued taking that attitude."
Changing political climate
Talbott last month visited North Carolina's Republican senators, Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth -- both fierce opponents of the NEA -- and found the discussion less confrontational than in the past.
"My own evolution has gone from a place of abject distaste and horror of people like Jesse Helms who attack the arts and the things I believe in, to the position of, if things are ever going to change, if there is ever going to be understanding, it's my responsibility to communicate in a fair and decent way with these people," she said.
The efforts of the arts lobby culminated in last month's Arts Advocacy Day, in which 400 activists descended on Congress, headlined by Baldwin, Marlo Thomas and other stars.
Equally important have been the stars who have aligned to create today's political climate. The House is less conservative than it was two years ago.
What's more, the public's discomfort with the Gingrich-led conservative wave of 1994 led to narrow re-elections last year for moderate Republicans, who are now talking up the NEA.
"Moderates are plenty motivated," said Woodruff, the NEA lobbyist. "For some, it's in their interest to support the arts as a way to differentiate themselves from the extremists in their party."
Credit for Alexander
Some in the arts community credit NEA chief Alexander, who is respected on Capitol Hill and traveled to every state in the first two years of her four-year tenure to meet with local arts groups, with keeping the agency alive.
Some of the changes the actress instituted -- including eliminating grants to individual artists -- have been applauded by critics. With few exceptions, the NEA's foes in Congress are no longer looking for the latest Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit -- that is, some offensive or eyebrow-raising art backed by an NEA grant and, thus, taxpayer money.
"We've made the agency a pretty tight ship in terms of excellence," Alexander said. "It's not going to be without controversy, but they won't find art that is unworthy."
Still, some of those who favor phasing out the NEA, such as Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, argue that arts funding is simply not an appropriate role for government in budget-crunching times.
"It's not an anti-arts vote," Ehrlich insists. "But if we're really serious about balancing the budget, this and a million other decisions are going to have to be made."
Alexander calls that argument "specious," saying the government has a long history of supporting "intellectual and creative life."
She said she is "elated" that, for now at least, momentum seems to be going her way. But she is not confident enough to anticipate victory, especially as conservative groups vow to turn up the heat on lawmakers.
"It's a good fight to have," said Scott A. Hodge of the Heritage Foundation, who sees the NEA battle as a perfect starting point for the broader debate over the role of government. "This is what it's all about."
Pub Date: 4/06/97