The new millennium has been good for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). In June, the US House of Representatives voted to increase the budget of the NEA for the first time since 1992.
The NEA has been fighting for its life since 1989. Formed in 1965, the organization enjoyed a little over two decades of widespread support. Arts and politics analyst Lewis Hyde writes, “The Cold War energized much of the public funding devoted to art and science between 1965 and 1989, when it was important to show off Western vitality in contrast to the banality of the Eastern Bloc.”
But by 1989, the Cold War was over and the tax revolt had begun. Senator Jesse Helms led the attack on the NEA. ” I have fundamental questions about why the federal government is supporting artists the taxpayers have refused to support in the marketplace,” he said. The moral opposition to the NEA organized around art concerned with women, homosexuals, and minorities. In 1994, when Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, the situation worsened. NEA funding plunged. As an example, in 1980 total NEA funding for dance was $8,631,567. By 1996 it had dropped to $2,725,000. In 1997, the House voted to abolish the NEA by eliminating funding altogether. Fortunately the Senate overturned the House, and funding was restored.
The situation improved when, in June 2000, the House Congressional Arts Caucus, a bipartisan organization led by Representatives Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Norm Dicks (R-WA), introduced an amendment to increase the Clinton administration’s proposed NEA budget of $98 million by $7 million. The amendment passed 207 to 204, but conservatives, led by Representative Cliff Stearns (R-FL), killed the increase by diverting the funds elsewhere. The Senate saved the day by restoring the $7 million increase to fund the NEA at $105 million, a move that survived conference negotiations in the House to become law.
The congressional support in 2000 was due in large part to the popularity of a new NEA outreach initiative known as Challenge America. Representative Slaughter explains, “The Challenge America program focuses on arts education, after-school arts programs for youth, access to the arts for under-served communities and community arts development initiatives. It reaches out to all 50 states, hundreds of congressional districts, and thousands of communities, and members of Congress understand what a positive impact it has had upon their constituents.”
In April 2001, the Bush administration proposed flat funding for the NEA at $105 million. Arts advocates understood this to be a conciliatory gesture on the part of a president who had run as a conservative, and needed to appease moderates. In May, the Congressional Arts Caucus introduced a floor amendment in the House to increase the Bush administration’s proposed NEA funding by $10 million, to $115.2 million. The amendment passed 221-193, a significant margin compared to the three-vote victory in 2000. Conservatives led by Stearns again attacked with an amendment to divert the arts increase into fuel conservation accounts. Stearns characterized the vote as a vote FOR lower fuel prices rather than a vote AGAINST the arts. But the Stearns amendment failed 145-264.
In July the proposed increase went from the House to the Senate, where it passed easily.
The funding victory was significant not only because it was the first increase supported by the House in eight years, but also because the debate focused on the source of the funds rather than on the morality of the arts. Reflecting on the victory, Representative Slaughter says, “At the present time, federal funding for the arts accounts for one one-hundredth of one percent (.01%) of the federal budget. The arts improve our local and national economies, keep our kids off the streets, improve SAT scores, and remind us of our rich cultural and artistic heritage. Given the enormous benefits our country receives from the arts, most Americans would agree that this is a small price to pay.”
While the University of Illinois is the only local arts organization to receive funds directly from the NEA (The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts has received $131,700 over the past five years), 40% of NEA funds go to state arts agencies. In fiscal year 2000, for example, the NEA gave the Illinois Arts Council (IAC) $586,900. In turn, the IAC gave the Champaign-Urbana area $732,687. (If this discrepancy seems strange, it is because only 3% of the IAC budget comes from the NEA; the balance comes from the state of Illinois’ general revenue fund.) Among the local recipients of IAC funds are community radio WEFT, the Champaign Park District, and the White Street Arts Center.
Make a Sound!
While credit is due to the NEA itself and to the shrewdness of its Challenge America initiative, national arts advocates like Americans for the Arts and state organizations like the Illinois Arts Alliance (IAA) have also worked hard to re-establish political support for the arts. They maintain web sites where citizens can keep abreast of art legislation, and find out how their representatives have voted. Timothy Johnson, for example, has a good arts record. He voted for the Slaughter amendment and against the Stearns challenge.
Alene Valkanas, the Executive Director of the Illinois Arts Alliance, urges arts organizations, schools, and individual artists to take every opportunity to inform political figures about their activities and their positive impact on the community. An expedient way to do this is to invite a political decision-maker to every event.