Supporters of the National Endowment for the Arts last week pulled off a victory of sorts by coaxing Congress to give the agency an extra $7.4 million.
After eight years without any increase in NEA funding, President Clinton signed an Interior Department appropriations bill last Wednesday that put the fiscal 2001 NEA budget at $105 million.
However, the increased monies come with a caveat. The extra money could go only toward the NEA’s new Challenge America program, a program of arts education in rural communities acceptable to both sides of the political aisle.
That leaves the NEA basically in the same shape as it has been for the past three years, with a drastically reduced budget. After the House voted to halt funding in 1997, the Senate fought to save the NEA, and the two compromised at just under $98 million, about what the agency was receiving back in 1977.
But the arts wars are far from over, says Lynne Munson, author of the just published book “Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance.” Miss Munson, a former aide to then-National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chairwoman Lynne V. Cheney, spoke on the topic last week at a National Press Club function sponsored by the Independent Women’s Forum.
“The art wars have been led less by reason than by rage,” Miss Munson said. “Each controversy has packed a fury so fierce that it made these art wars resemble military engagements more than intellectual arguments.”
The approach of NEA Director Bill Ivey “seems to be popularizing the arts,” she said. “It’s not addressing any of the problems in the arts, and it’s not standing up for the idea that standards do exist… .
“They are real things. Artists’ work can be compared; qualitative judgments can be made. For so many years, the NEA has operated as if standards don’t exist. It’s hard to understand how they can rationalize choosing some artists over others.”
Speaking alongside Miss Munson, Hilton Kramer, a former New York Times art critic who now edits and publishes New Criterion magazine, said the Clinton administration has made the NEA, the NEH and the subject of art “innocuous.”
“The NEA and NEH should have long ago been abolished,” he said. “They have no useful functions to perform in our society any more. But there’s a kind of piety of having such institutions as part of the government now.”
Ever since he took up the post two years ago, Mr. Ivey has been trying to convince his Republican foes to cease talk of killing the agency. Thus, in June, Rep. Mark Sounder, Indiana Republican, told House members the NEA deserved to be rewarded for practicing restraint in its arts grants.
Nevertheless, House Republicans defeated an amendment that would have raised the NEA’s budget by $15 million. In the intervening summer months, a plan was found that would satisfy both sides: the NEA would get half that amount $7.4 million for the Challenge America program, allaying critics’ contentions that NEA grants were primarily targeted toward elite institutions in large cities.
Mr. Souder, however, had a change of heart, and on Sept. 28 he castigated the agency on the floor of the House for continuing to fund blasphemous art. His beef was with “Corpus Christi,” a 1998 play at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York that portrayed Jesus Christ and His disciples as homosexual lovers.
“We have continued to fund this theater after they insulted those of us who believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior,” Mr. Souder said. Even after the bad publicity garnered by the theater in October 1998, “[the NEA] in effect told the American people to go stick it in your ear.”
For the 2000 fiscal year, the theater got a $50,000 grant for its education program in alternative New York high schools and a $50,000 grant to fund the production of “Y2K” by Arthur Kopit. Decisions for the 2000 grants were made in 1999 and early 2000.
Mr. Souder said he had been “deceived and duped” by the NEA, which has repeatedly said it did not fund “Corpus Christi.”
“It is a tad too cute to convince me or anyone else that we are not funding the play directly when we are funding the stage, when we are funding the repertory company, when we are funding in effect, indirectly their advertising and their overhead,” he said. “Of course, they are funding the play.”
He also criticized NEA grants made in the past two years to several avant-garde outlets, including the New York-based Women Make Movies, a distributor of lesbian-themed films, the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in the District, which staged the play “My Queer Body”; the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which got headlines in March for its “Sanitation” exhibit depicting New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Rev. Pat Robertson, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, as Nazis.
The NEA says such grants are a minuscule part of some 28,000 grants it distributes from its Washington headquarters and through state arts agencies. In its most recent funding cycle, the NEA gave $33 million in grants to the states. Grants given to all 50 states and several U.S. territories make up 40 percent of the NEA’s total budget.
States differ on how they track NEA money. Ricardo Hernandez, deputy director of the Texas Commission on the Arts, says the state’s $665,100 NEA allotment is spread out to hundreds of grants, including $70,000 to rural communities and $50,000 to arts-education residencies.
“Each state has discretion with endowment money,” he says. “We give grants from the NEA to some really small and remote places.”
Adam Gottlieb, spokesman for the California Arts Council, says California sent its $836,800 NEA grant into artists-in-residence programs.
NEA spokeswoman Cherie Simon says all the states are required to spend their grants on arts education and reaching the underserved. Some time after they get the money, states must list the name of each project and the sponsoring institution, the discipline (dance, music, etc.), the type of activity and how the money was matched.
But no one was able to track funding for one unusual arts event. When New York University staged a “Queer Publics/Queer Privates” conference on homosexual politics and culture May 1-2, 1998, the New York State Council for the Arts and the NEA were credited as sponsors in a May 5 article by the Wall Street Journal. The conference ended in a performance by a Los Angeles drag queen known as “Vaginal Creme Davis.”
A spokeswoman for the New York State Council for the Arts, which got $691,300 in NEA money during the 1998 fiscal year, says it has no record of giving to such a conference. NEA funds, she said, go mainly for staff salaries and to a program administered by the Harlem School for the Arts. The New York University press office did not return calls.