NEA vulnerable amid transition

Even with the recent election of an arts-friendly president to the White House, the National Endowment for the Arts could once again be in a weakened position as it prepares for the reauthorization battle in 1993.

Already, arts groups and civil-rights activists are predicting that the NEA will once again be a prime target for conservatives, and it heads toward that battle with a lame-duck regime and a new president with other things on his mind.

“I’d say it was almost guaranteed that the conservatives will go after the NEA again,” said Bob Peck, with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The only question will be whether they spend a lot of energy on it.”

And given that the NEA’s top brass are now in a state of turmoil –acting chair Anne-Imelda Radice already has indicated publicly that she has no intention of trying to keep her job–agency sources say the NEA is doing little to prepare for the attack.

“Even though I think the new administration will be quite friendly toward the arts, if they follow the Democratic platform,” said John Frohnmayer, former NEA chair, “the administration is only part of the equation.

“Pat Robertson has declared war on a number of things, including the NEA, and I’m sure the conservatives will ride this horse as much as they can,” he said. “I think the real test will be whether or not the arts are isolated again when it comes time for reauthorization. If they are isolated, they will fall prey to the same kind of smear campaign.”

What it will come down to is how quickly Clinton acts to name a new chairman for the NEA, with reauthorization just a few months down the road. Even if he names someone in February, the appointment process tends to be quite time-consuming, since the person has to go through various governmental security checks.

At a meeting of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies this past week, a Clinton representative hinted that the president-elect may try to delay the reauthorization process so that he can have his own appointees in place.

There’s also been speculation that Clinton may reactivate the now-dormant Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, as a means of having his own appointees on hand to shepherd the agency through a likely hostile reauthorization.

Meanwhile, there are several issues that the NEA will have to address in the coming months, not the least of which is the congressionally mandated percentage of federal monies now being allocated to state arts agencies.

In 1990, when the NEA was reauthorized for three years, Congress voted to increase the amount of federal money going directly to state agencies, from 20% to 35%.

In anticipation of those added funds, most states cut their own arts budgets, but the state cuts have turned out to be much greater than the added federal money.

There is also the matter of content restrictions, which Clinton has said he opposes.

While many expect that support of the arts will play an important role in the Clinton administration, it’s already apparent that the arts are not high on the president-elect’s initial priority list.

“On his list of 100 things he wants to do first, the arts fall about 101,” noted one insider. “I wouldn’t expect him to be acting on this any time soon.”

And with the federal agency encumbered by an outgoing regime — there are buttons being passed around saying “Arrivederci Radice”–the NEA could once again find itself in a weakened position.

“The respite the NEA had this year was due to President Bush’s administration asking everyone to give Radice a chance,” explained one source. “But that’s now past. The agency’s critics are not going to trust a Democratic administration or a Democratic-appointed chair.”

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