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How strong is NEA support?

WASHINGTON -- As the fate of the National Endowment for the Arts hung in the balance, a troubling question also hovered in the air: have the agency's supporters done enough?

At press time the House had voted 217-216 to eliminate the NEA, and the Senate was set to vote on the future of the agency. "This has nothing to do with money," said NEA spokesperson Cherie Simon. "It has everything to do with politics. This certainly is, I think, the most serious threat to the Endowment. The leadership of the House has made [the NEA] a test of their control in Congress."

These pronouncements constituted a state of emergency to some arts advocacy groups. The American Arts Alliance -- an umbrella organization of arts lobbyists -- alerted its members to the emergency in its summer 1997 newsletter, which contained a flyer calling for immediate action and a sample letter for NEA supporters to send to their legislators. But motivating NEA constituents is not so easy, according to Bonnie Brooks, executive director of Dance/USA, which has also sent out "action alerts" to its approximately 150 members. "Part of the difficulty for those of us working in Washington is we're working in a fast lane," said Brooks. "Every year we face the same set of problems and have to remotivate the same set of people."

Trouble has been brewing for the NEA ever since the 104th Congress took effect. The Republicans tried to kill the agency before, most notably with a middle-of-the-night agreement among House leadership in 1995 in which an accord was made to fund the agency for another fiscal year if the endowment would be eliminated in fiscal year 1998. The endowment had managed to survive to date due to bipartisan support. But last minute arm-twisting by Speaker Newt Gingrich eroded enough moderate Republican support to doom the agency in the House.

The question remains as to how well the lobbying efforts by arts organizations are paying off. "We thought we had gained momentum," sighed Michael Kaiser, executive director of American Ballet Theatre.

Executives at two organizations which received NEA funds in 1997 -- the Joyce Theater in New York City and the Stephen Petronio Company -- agreed that the truncating of and threat to eliminate the NEA are an ongoing frustration but insisted that lobbying efforts are not in vain. Whether the importance of the NEA funds was seen primarily as a "stamp of approval," a means of drawing out money from other sources, or a way to promote the creative process, agreed that without the NEA funds -- however minimal in terms of actual percentage of budget -- the organizations would suffer without the monies. Kaiser referred to the NEA funds as "our creative money," stating that out of ABT's 1997 $23 million budget, $150,000 directly came from the NEA, "but it is still an integral part. Without NEA funds, there is a chain reaction."

To gauge firsthand the impact the arts organization's efforts have had, Dance Magazine called several key members of the House. A spokesperson for Bob Livingston (R-LA), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the NEA's most vocal critics, especially of funding, said that Livingston has received few NEA-related calls or letters. Those he has received favor phasing out the agency.

Barbara Wainman, spokesperson for Ralph Regula (R-OH), chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, said "not a lot of phone calls were received. We've had a few letters, and I would say that a handful opposes [cutting NEA funds]."

Mary Bain, chief of staff for retiring Rep. Sidney Yates (D-IL), ranking Democrat on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, said, "We've had many phone calls and an enormous amount of letters, most in support of the NEA."

However, subcommittee member John Murtha's (D-PA) office reported lackluster support. "We only received eight to ten calls or letters in regard to the last action by the subcommittee," said Murtha's spokesperson, Brad Clemenson. "More of those were in favor of [continuing] NEA funding. However, I will tell you that over the last couple of years, most of the calls and letters we've received have been against funding the NEA."

Arts organizations, while confirming they are firmly committed to lobbying efforts, say it's not always easy to carry them out. Said Russo: "The smaller organizations don't have someone on their staff to whom they can say, `You do the advocacy work, you send these faxes, you deal with these letters, you call these people.' Sure, we wish we could all do more, but the reality is that's why we have [Dance/USA]."

There is always the President Clinton, who has not yet backed down in his support of the NEA. He threatened early on to veto any appropriations bill that eliminates the Endowment. And Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly denounced the committee and subcommittee's recommendations. At press time, there continued to be strong support in the Senate.
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Title Annotation:political support for National Endowment for the Arts
Author:Clark, Marika
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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