Republicans gun for arts cash

February 10, 1995

One measure of the huge political transformation taking place in the United States is that two grant-making bodies, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, are threatened with closure by conservatives energised by the Republican majority in Congress.

Before last November's elections these bodies, which perform the same kind of job as the Arts Council, were secure. In the past, conservatives had taken pot shots at them, and particularly at the NEA for funding art considered to be lewd, but the attacks were not the life and death matter they are now that the critics are leaders in Congress.

It would be possible for Republicans to close down the two endowments if they mustered enough support, because 1995 is the year in which Congress is required to reauthorise the two bodies and approve their budgets. How better to save money and appeal to middle America than to shut down a couple of elite-sounding institutions in Washington?

Newt Gingrich, new speaker of the House of Representatives, is on record as saying: "The National Endowment for the Arts has become a plaything . . . It's art patronage for an elite group, and it is funding for avant-garde people who are explicitly not accepted by most of the taxpayers who are coerced into paying for it.

"The National Endowment for the Humanities . . . has gone off the deep end on proposing changes that are destructive of American civilisation."

Two former chairmen of the NEH, Lynne Cheney and William Bennett, told a congressional hearing last month that the bodies should be pensioned off. "The two endowments have done at least as much harm as they have done good in terms of the cultural life of our nation," said Bennett.

Not all Republicans agreed with him. Hollywood actor Charlton Heston, who is a noted conservative, said both bodies had made mistakes but he thought they should be allowed to stay alive. Nancy Kassebaum, Republican chairman of the senate labour and human resources committee, who has taken over the Teddy Kennedy mantle in the senate, wants the endowments to continue, but maybe with restrictions on their funding.

Not surprisingly the endowments themselves are engaging in frenetic lobbying. Jane Alexander, chairman of the NEA, and Sheldon Hackney, former president of the University of Pennsylvania and chairman of the NEH, have been meeting every day with members of Congress.

Telephone lines have been set up by arts and humanities groups to channel calls to legislators. One line has been toll-free; the other a money-making venture.

The People for the American Way, a civil liberties group, has enlisted the help of a former chairman of Time Life who is finding businessmen to support the endowments.

Another initiative, "The Cultural Advocacy Campaign", has brought together 60 arts and humanities organisations which claim that cultural funding is a good investment. They say that the $345 million spent by the two endowments enables groups around the country to leverage 11 times that amount from other sources of funding. The argument is that the amount generated is $36.8 billion a year which supports 1.3 million jobs.

Conservatives are lobbying too. They are mounting exhibitions and circulating movies about artists and work they consider offensive.

There is particular animus over photographic work by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano that was thought to be pornographic and blasphemous by many conservatives. Both men received grants from the NEA, and a furore followed.

Most of the funds from the two endowments go to uncontroversial people and institutions. The NEH, for example, funded the public television series, The Civil War, praised for its high quality. But it has run into criticism over its funding for rewriting of the school history curriculum.

The attack on the two bodies is part of a more general effort to cut or abolish the federal government funding of culture. Conservatives are also trying to reduce funding for public broadcasting in the belief that it is biased and that the industry should be privately funded in any case.

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