A word for the wise.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the federal agency that has so successfully funded more than 110,000 arts programs since it was established in 1965, has encouraged many of our best artists and has made the experience of art available to millions. The amount of the federal budget spent on the endowment is comparatively small, but the agency's existence is of primary symbolic importance to an enlightened America. Although the average NEA grants constitute less than 2 percent of the recipients' budgets, the NEA has become a focal point of arts opponents in both the House and Senate because the arts are a very visible target, promising heavy media coverage ("See, we're doing our job!"), and artists typically do not play the political games needed to win support.
The much-discussed "mandate" of the November 1994 elections is very much open to interpretation. That the voters were dissatisfied with the current crop of elected officials is one fair interpretation; but to claim that the mandate was to reduce government spending in the areas of art and education is overzealous, an attempt to strong-arm change by selecting the most vulnerable targets, victims who are least able to resist. The arts are at the core of our civilization; they are neither irrelevant nor, as Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has claimed, elitist." You have only to look at the record of broad support by the NEA, from bluegrass fiddlers to Abenaki Indian beadwork, from the Children's Festival Chorus of Pittsburgh to the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., to see how unfounded the elitist" charge is. One dollar given by the NEA generates another eleven for the arts from nongovernment sources. What the "elitist" charge tells us is that artists have somehow failed to inform Washington just how far federal dollars spent on the arts can go. These are dollars invested in dignity and self-respect, in discovery and expression; these are dollars invested in our future. Dollars designated for the arts are the best bargain in government spending.
In her introduction to the endowment's 1993 annual report, chairperson Jane Alexander spells out the wisdom that underlies the NEA philosophy: "Now let us fan the flames of new creativity in our writers, composers and painters from Maine to Guam. Let us find comfort and inspiration in the cultural endeavors of this land. Let us find new laughter and wisdom alike on stages and screens and pages from Anchorage to the Virgin Islands. Let us encourage children and young adults from the Upper Peninsula to the Outer Banks and the High Desert to discover the arts as vehicles for their own creative energies and as hopeful mirrors of their dreams. Let us listen to scientists and bend new technologies into the service of the arts, which means to the service of humankind. Let this agency continue the work it began more than a generation ago, and may our age come to be remembered as the time of an American Renaissance."
But instead of launching an American Renaissance, we're reduced to fighting for survival. The biannual bill to reauthorize the NEA was introduced in early January and there will be organized opposition. Even if this bill is passed, we can be sure of further crippling cuts.
Practical things to do right now: In addition to writing letters to local papers and distributing information, you might organize advocates on your favorite dance company's board of directors (they may have social or political connections in Washington), among your vendors and suppliers (they would be affected if you could not pay your bills as a result of a budget crunch), and in your local chamber of commerce. Since there is great emphasis at the moment on the "usefulness" of the arts, send information about your community education and outreach programs to your elected officials, along with tickets to performances. Think of these lobbying efforts as an ongoing process, of building relationships, of getting to know your elected officials on a first-name basis.
Dance/USA is a national dance service organization that works in coordination with five other service organizations (serving opera, orchestras, presenters. theaters, and museums) to form the American Arts Alliance. Together they have set up a phone number, (900) 370-9000, which you can call; the operator will read a statement to you about saving the NEA; you can have it sent as a Mailgram to your two senators and your congressional representative, three people who were elected to serve your mandate. Tell them what that mandate is. Surveys show that the majority of Americans support the arts and that the arts are good for business. That message should be clearly reinforced.
Journalist Anna Quindlen wrote last fall about the "politics of meanness . . . cloaked in a patina of conspicuous Christianity." She was referring to the vociferous minority who, like Speaker Gingrich., still pay lip service to the idea of freedom of speech and expression, but who insist these freedoms should not have government support. Good art is provocative and often controversial; the Right is right about that. It is also true that the arts have never been self-supporting; patronage is essential and a measure of any society's success. We find ourselves on the brink of a dangerous dark age when the ground gained since the founding of the NEA may be lost, the good and steady work of generations wiped out by noisy demagogues and philistines. If the government's role in arts funding is cut or, as threatened, eliminated, the message that action would send to the world about American culture would not be something that any of us or our children or grandchildren would want to live with.
Let the word recision remain buried in our dictionaries.