WASHINGTON -- Supporters of the arts rallied yesterday in defense of federal financing, a week after House Speaker Newt Gingrich restated his opposition to such subsidies.
Even before the Republicans gained control of Congress, the idea of federal money for the arts was hotly debated. Now, advocates for federal support, such as actor F. Murray Abraham, see themselves fighting a defensive battle.
Before the event, Abraham said that, although he would participate in the rally, he would prefer to talk directly to the conservatives who oppose federal financing for the arts. "I would really like to talk to Newt and other people who need to be convinced," he said.
"If farmers can be subsidized for not growing things, why can't artists be subsidized for producing?" Abraham said. "I don't know why there's a separation between farmers and artists."
Last week, Gingrich reached out to House conservatives by recommitting himself to cutting off federal money for the arts.
His conservative supporters were ruffled last month when the speaker had a private 15-minute meeting with actor Alec Baldwin, who had come to Washington to lobby for federal support for the arts.
The conservatives took that meeting as a signal that Gingrich might abandon his fight to kill such spending.
But Gingrich renewed his efforts, saying, "If the people who come to lobby us who are famous and rich would simply dedicate 1 percent of their gross income to an American endowment for the arts, they would fund a bigger system than the National Endowment for the Arts."
Last year, President Clinton asked for $136 million for the endowment, and Congress provided $99.5 million. Clinton has renewed his request at the higher level this year, but Congress is unlikely to provide that much.
At its high point, in 1992, the NEA received $176 million.
When Rep. John T. Doolittle, a critic of federal arts spending, was asked about yesterday's rally, he said, "It escapes me why artists would want to come to Washington to beg for federal intervention in the arts."
Doolittle, a California Republican and co-chairman of the Conservative Action Team, said: "Government control and government money threaten the freedoms artists cherish most, including the freedom of expression."
Gingrich and many conservatives in Congress have contended that money from the endowment is for the benefit of an elite group that could pay for the arts without federal support.
"There are too many examples that prove that's not the case," Abraham said. "There is a complete arts center in Boise, Idaho, that includes a ballet company, an opera company, a theater and a children's theater. It got seed money from the NEA. How could anyone call that elitist?"
The rally was organized by Artnow, a coalition of artists, art organizations, students and teachers.
Pub Date: 4/20/97