Reflecting on 35 Years of the NEA

Reflecting on 35 Years of the NEA Diva Jessye Norman, D.Mus. '88, sang to honor the thirty-fifth anniversary of the National Endowment for the...

Reflecting on 35 Years of the NEA

Diva Jessye Norman, D.Mus. '88, sang to honor the thirty-fifth anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) at the Kennedy School's ARCO Forum in February. Then NEA directors past and present reflected on the agency's role and history, and on its prospects for survival.

Moderator and New York Times columnist Frank Rich '71 introduced the panelists: current chairman Bill Ivey and his predecessors Jane Alexander (1993-1997); John Frohnmayer (1989-92); Frank Hodsoll (1981-1989); and Livingston Biddle (1977-1981). All agreed that federal investment in the arts had become, in Ivey's words, "a battleground for ideological conflicts." Several panelists pointed to Frohnmayer's experience (he was fired by former President George Bush) as an example of the NEA's vulnerability to political pressure. Since 1992, when Frohnmayer was forced out, NEA funding has dropped from a high of $176 million to $97.6 million this year. But opinions varied widely over how to cope with partisan influence.

Hodsoll, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, took the pragmatic view that the money funding the NEA belongs to taxpayers; thus the NEA chairman is obliged not to offend the people's elected officials. "You have to pay attention to who is in charge," he said, asserting that to be true of any human institution.

Alexander challenged Hodsoll's own handling of controversial exhibitions, noting that his deferred decisions had become Frohnmayer's responsibility. Hodsoll replied that he would have done "anything but [Robert Mapplethorpe's] XYZ [Portfolios]" (the photographs that offended many people, including Washington politicians)--and said that he would have specifically avoided that project to avoid destroying the endowment.

But Frohnmayer--asserting his particular right to comment, "since I did get fired for this"--contended in reply that "offense is our birthright." Alexander lamented that Hodsoll's policy would mean the NEA would always need to look at "who is making the appropriations," and concluded, "We need better minds in government." Biddle's perspective seemed forged in a simpler era: he told how he, with the assistance of Gregory Peck (fresh from playing Abraham Lincoln in a feature film), had traded on the actor's star power and his autograph to secure a crucial vote for the NEA from a formerly hostile Republican member of Congress.

Ivey, clearly sensitive to the political realities of the new century, appeared to take the centrist view. He began the evening by saying that, even though "the role of art is instrumental," we should "not assume a moral claim of art on the public wallet." He ended by saying, "Liberals feel the NEA should take the risks and exploit the First Amendment to the fullest, and conservatives feel that is not the role for the taxpayer's dollar." When moderator Rich asked, "Are we ever going to get beyond that paradigm?" it was the feisty Frohnmayer who responded: "Government needs to step up to this issue or the NEA will always be a marginal agency." JHJ-NEA graph eps

Chart by Stephen Anderson

 

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