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THE NEA'S WILLIAM IVEY.

WASHINGTON--Last October, new NEA chairman William J. Ivey hosted a performance by the recipients of the nation's most prestigious honor in folk and traditional arts. Onstage with the 1998 National Heritage Fellows--including the exquisite Cambodian Apsara Ensemble dancers--Ivey said, "We don't actually get to see that many artists in our work, so for us, this is very rewarding and inspiring."

Ah, the irony of government funding for the arts--that those who are supporting the nation's most creative endeavors are farther away from the artists than is the money itself. This could explain why U.S. House Republicans nearly reeled the entire Endowment into oblivion by voting for zero funding just two years ago. It could also explain why the essential role of art in American cultural and spiritual life could be so easily taken for granted by our country's elected officials.

Luckily, Ivey doesn't see it that way. An artist himself, he has been a fierce supporter of arts funding, education, and preservation since President Clinton appointed him chair in May 1998. Under his leadership, Congress awarded the NEA $98 million for fiscal year 1999.

In a speech Ivey gave at the National Press Club last fall, this former director of Nashville's Country Music Foundation said, "Making art, consuming art, and learning art automatically bring into play the finest of our democratic values: tolerance, generosity, fairness, openness, opportunity, freedom of expression, and creativity. These are some of the deepest philosophical principles on which our nation was founded."

Ivey's profound appreciation for all things imaginative comes from years of playing the piano, producing records, and writing television shows. But since he no longer personally interacts with artists on a regular basis, where does his inspiration come from?

"For me, the excitement of working with the Endowment is trying to accomplish two things," he told Dance Magazine. "I'd like to leave this job with the agency stronger than it was when I came in, supported with a broad consensus that the work we do here is important to society." Ivey's second goal is to preserve the country's "living cultural heritage," he said, "so that young people in the year 2000 and beyond have good access to the creativity of artists who have gone before."

For dance, this means documenting the choreography of American legends such as Martha Graham, Alvin Alley, and Fred Astaire. In a refreshingly honest statement, Ivey admitted that he didn't know enough about dance to come up with other names off the top of his head, though he knew that there were many more. He did note, however, that Pilobolus and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company--both known for their high energy and innovative choreography--are his favorite troupes to watch. "I think they're wild," he said.

The NEA's most contentious experience in the spotlight under Ivey occurred on June 25, 1998, when the Supreme Court decided to uphold the law requiring the organization to consider decency as a criterion in allocating grants. The law originated from the 1989 controversy surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs, and was recently challenged on grounds of freedom of expression by New York's chocolate-smearing performance artist, Karen Finley. While many artists consider this highly subjective criterion a violation of free speech, Ivey supports it wholeheartedly.

"The Endowment has not had to change anything in how it goes about its business," Ivey said about the Supreme Court decision. "There is a broad spectrum of creativity that is an appropriate destination for federal dollars, and the arts endowment has always been about finding the most excellent example of activities in each of those areas."

But many still agree with what playwright Arthur Miller told the New York Times last July. "Certain kinds of art will always be called indecent," he said, "and they need support."

Aside from strong opposition on this issue from artists like Miller and Finley, Ivey seems to be well liked by both the government and the arts community. While he supports Congress's desire to influence the kind of art that can receive federal funds, he is challenging them to support grants for more individual artists. (Currently grants for individual artists are available only in the categories of jazz, folk art, and literature.)

In regard to Ivey's leadership, the feeling in Washington, for now, is optimistic. "We are enthusiastic about [Ivey's] appointment to the NEA," said Martin Cohen, president of Dance/USA, a national arts service organization. "We look forward to a positive, open, and productive dialogue with him."

It remains to be seen if Ivey can lead the NEA to do more than just scrape Dy, as it has in years past. At a minimum, the artist-turned-bureaucrat has a lofty goal. "I'm anticipating that we'll be able to move the Endowment to an appropriate level of funding, given its importance to American cultural life," he said, "and have a new kind of federal commitment to the agency so that its existence won't be threatened again."
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Title Annotation:National Endowment for the Arts director, William J. Ivey
Author:Samuels, Shayna
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Words:821
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