While tornadoes were tearing up the Carolinas and hurricane force winds were inundating the New Jersey coast with tidal floods last March, Washington, D.C. was in the midst of a fierce downpour of another kind, as the staff of the National Endowment for the Arts appeared before the House Subcommittee on the Interior to justify President Reagan’s 1985 reduced arts budget.
Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-IL), subcommittee chairman, made waves of his own, as his persistent questioning struck at some of the crucial concerns of the arts. With only an hour’s reprieve for lunch, NEA chairman Frank Hodsoll sat in the witness seat and responded to the day-long barrage of questions addressed by Yates and his fellow committee members.
The atmosphere was sometimes amiable, sometimes contentious, but never wholly comfortable. The hearing opened with a statement from Hodsoll: “Our request, as you know, Mr. Chairman, is for $143.875.000 for fiscal year 1985, which is the same amount appropriated in fiscal year 1983. The reason for this amount is the need to exercise restraint in light of federal budget deficits. Inflation and interest rates are down; the recovery is underway, and this is helping the arts.”
Yates responded with sharp criticism of the five-year plan recently delivered by the NEA to the subcommittee [see American Theatre, Apri 84]: “Let me just point out that I found nothing in this plan that indicated what you consider the financial problems of the arts to be. Did I miss something?” Yates said that “the guts” of the arts community’s problem is the question of its financial prospects both now and in the future.
Hodsoll, however, disagreed.”It is not clear,” he said, “that financial problems are necessarily the most difficult. Stability has probably improved, particularly for the more established organizations, in the last 10 to 15 years.” He confirmed that
“this may have happened at the expense of the art form in a number of areas” but contended that “we can do a job with the $144 million budget we have proposed. It is very important that we establish unassailably exactly how we are using taxpayers’ dollars. There is no question arts support should increase—I said that before—but we have these federal budget deficits.
“At the hearing a year ago, you asked me to dream in planning. It is hard for old bureaucrats to dream.” Nevertheless, Hodsoll said he did have some “bottom-line goals” for the remainder of the decade: to reverse the decrease in real earnings of art-ists; to enable every student to graduate from high school with a “degree of artistic literacy”; to have a “critical mass of citizens” who would make their cities better through the arts; to broaden arts audiences; to encourage experimentation; and to assure the preservation of great art. “How we have the greatest impact on some of these real problems—not in Washington but out there–will be the bottom line of what the Endowment is all about.”
“I did ask you to dream,” Yates replied, “but nowhere in your dream do you discuss the role of the National Endowment for the Arts. In that very comprehensive statement which you just gave you did not indicate what you hoped or expected would be the evolution of the National Endowment for the Arts or how much of a role it can play financially.”
“The Endowment is basically going to have to target its resources even more carefully than in the past,” Hod-soll answered.
Rep. William R. Ratchford (D-CT) expressed surprise that, while the worst-case scenario for most federal budget items this year is “holding the line,” the NEA budget contains an $18 million reduction. “I am curious as to whether that evolved within your agency or at the Office of Management and Budget?” Hodsoll revealed that his own recommendation of $161.7 million was trimmed by OMB director David Stockman, who, in Hodsoll’s words, was looking for “areas where there would not be undue damage if there were cuts.”
“This isn’t progress. This is retrogression,” Yates countered. “They are marching backwards!” The congressman complained that none of the four budgets submitted by the NEA to the President’s budget director (ranging from $112.5 million to $161.7 million), was equal to this year’s $162 million appropriation. “That doesn’t make sense to me at all,” he said, pointing out that inflation would cause an even greater cut in real dollar terms.
He said that the plan submitted by former NEA chairman Livingston Biddle in 1978 had included projected appropriation figures of up to $300 million for 1984. “I never had the opportunity to ask Mr. Biddle how he arrived at the figures,” he commented, but “I think he may have dreamed a little harder than you.”
Yates directed Hodsoll to rework the Endowment budget and resubmit it to the subcommittee based on projected 1985 appropriation levels of $165 million, $170 million and $175 million, respectively.
Turning to the NEA five-year plan, Yates challenged Hodsoll’s statistics on private sector support for the arts, referring to claims by the Business Committee for the Arts that corporate support had shown staggeringly high gains between 1981 and 1982. He questioned the wisdom of using the BCA findings which have been heavily criticized by both the arts and research communities, including pollster Louis Harris.
“I can pretty well guarantee they are not overly precise,” Hodsoll agreed, “but the trend lines have comparable orders of fudginess or lack of analytical rigor.” He said he does think the figures can be used to indicate relative magnitude.
“You use those figures and vou extrapolate from them as though they were gospel. Now you are are saying they are soft,” Yates continued, arguing that “the thesis that private giving more than offsets the federal reductions cannot be sustained when viewed from the recipients’ point of view, since the giving total includes major gifts to public television that tend to obscure what is happening to smaller organizations.”
Hodsoll answered that, in designing the budget cuts, the Endowment has “largely held harmless” those categories in programs which deal with smaller institutions.
Continuing to focus his questioning on the five-year plan, Yates said, “Let us discuss the phrase that seems to be becoming so popular and which you used in your initial presentation, the phrase ‘artistic deficit.’ Certainly it is present in the case of the nonprofit theatres, as is revealed in the front-page article that appeared in The New York Times on March 14. The thrust of the article is that theatres are spending more and more time trying to raise funds, and as a result, they are spending less and less time on artistic endeavors. How many theatres will fall by the wayside if your budget is cut? What you are doing with a budget of this kind is causing a withdrawal of artistic endeavor in every one of the arts, are you not?”
Hodsoll responded that, because the average grant represents only four to six percent of an institution’s operating budget, the impact of the cuts would not be debilitating.
Yates called on each of the Endowment’s 15 program directors successively to respond to questions. Citing proposed reductions in Theatre Program funds from the current $10.6 million to the proposed $9.3 million, he asked Theatre Program director Edward Martenson, “How badly is the theatre hurt by this budget?”
“I think I tried to describe for you last year a kind of historical perspective on this very young field, young in the sense that it began to institutionalize less than 30 years ago,” Martenson began. He described the decentralization of the theatre and the recent concentration on developing economically stable institutions.
“We need to look forward now to the beginning of a new phase that really concentrates on artistic development and at least returns to the early ambitions that theatre people had for the creation of the nonprofit theatre movement. These were people who thought the United States should and could put together a record of world class achievement in the theatre. These achievements are assumed to be in our future, and the point is that now is the time this new phase should begin.
“I think for the theatre field, this question of how we are hurt by this budget is very much a case of momentum and whether we will give impetus to a new phase of development which is very important indeed. In a sense we have reached a period of time when there ought to be a payoff on all of this constructing and financial sophistication. The question in my mind is how long is that going to be put off?
“I would be very disappointed to see our new initiative for Ongoing Ensembles be curtailed. The budget that is shown here for 1985 would allow us to continue into the second year of our work with the initial companies we choose in fiscal year 1984, but would not allow us to bring one or two or three new grantees into that program for a five-year period. And, within a reduced allocation, we would also have to curtail our grants to theatre companies, which remain our most important mechanism for encouraging vitality. With over $9 million, we can do a lot of good things, but certainly we can’t do as much good as we are going to do this year with a slightly larger budget.”
Yates asked Martenson if the NEA had taken any position on a “national theatre.” Martenson responded that, while he had received no formal funding requests for a national theatre, recent press reports had prompted a Theatre Panel discussion. “I think our panelists unanimously feel you can’t really build a national theatre from scratch; it is something that has to work up to that level and then the recognition comes.” He cited the panel members’ concern that the costs of creating such a theatre would be staggering and their belief that no single theatre or network of theatres could adequately reflect either the aesthetic diversity of the theatre or the cultural diversity of this country.
The day ended as it began, with a statement by Hodsoll, as a member of the Administration, reiterating his support for the President’s reduced arts budget.
The tone was as different as the weather two weeks later on April 10, when outside witnesses representing the arts passed the blooming cherry trees and entered the same congressional hearing room to testify on behalf of increased arts funding.
Written testimony prepared by Theatre Communications Group and the national organizations for the symphony, dance, opera and museum fields, and submitted by the American Arts Alliance, praised the subcommittee for its foresight, leadership and commitment to upholding a strong and viable federal arts policy. “The Administration’s FY ’85 request of $144 million is far below the current funding level, and still further below the amount needed to maintain adequate funding for our nation’s arts institutions. To sustain support, the American Arts Alliance is requesting an FY ’85 budget of $195 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.” The document cited financial pressures on theatres that preclude long-term growth, restrict artistic potential and cause shrinking career opportunities for artists.
A series of panelists assembled by the Alliance and other Washington-based advocacy groups gave testimony.
Milwaukee Repertory Theater managing director Sara O’Connor told the subcommittee that her theatre earns 70 percent of its budget. “But,” she said, “we were never chartered to ‘make a profit.’ If we’re not for-profit, we must be for something else—we are about creation and service. My field is large and many theatres are financially troubled. I would hate to see that, as the rest of us keep on investing, the National Endowment would not come along.”
“What would happen to theatre if there were no NEA?” asked Yates.
“We wouldn’t vanish,” O’Connor replied, “but our most exciting programs would shrink.”
“We feel ourselves in an artistic straightjacket.” said San Francisco Symphony director Peter Pastreich. “We’re supposed to lose money wisely. So we’re not taking risks on young American artists, because our boards have said we cannot take risks.”
“How do you keep your company together?” Yates asked choreographer Trisha Brown.
“The dancers collect unemployment,” she answered without missing a beat. “Never mind the two-car garage—what about the two-coat closet? Most dancers are considered ethereal creatures who can somehow live on air. And they are spat out of the system at age 35. We cannot earn the fees in America that we can in Europe. The European governments have brought the American avant-garde to perform there. We are ambassadors with our sleeves rolled up.”
“What’s your opinion of having a national dance company?” Yates inquired.
“Only if it’s the Trisha Brown Company!”
Turning to O’Connor, Yates asked, “What do you think of a national theatre?”
“We are a nation of many states; we’re much too big to have one company represent us. We have such vitality and fluidity—I hope we are always going to be very flexible.”
The good-natured tone of the hearings continued into the afternoon, and St. Louis Arts Commission director Nicholas Van Hevelingen drew guffaws when he told the subcommittee that the purported increase in corporate support is “like putting all the wings on the same side of the duck—it adds up but it doesn’t fly.”
The high point of the day was a serious one, as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, between rehearsals for a Kennedy Center concert, made his plea for arts support in the way he knew best—by removing his cello from the case that stood in the corner of the hearing room and playing a Bach suite for the rapt audience of congressmen, witnesses and senators. “I’d like to audition for an NEA grant,” he quipped. “I hope I get it.” When the music stopped, Rep. Ratchford moved that the grant be awarded.
The NEA appropriations bill was scheduled to be marked up by both the subcommittee and the full House Appropriations Committee this month, followed by action in the Senate. At press time, the Arts Alliance was still hopeful that the bill would be passed by both houses before Congress recesses in August.
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