New NEA chair faces a hot seat

The expected nomination of Jane Alexander today or Saturday as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts will come too late to make any difference in the agency’s 1993 budgetary or reauthorization battles with Congress, Capitol Hill sources said Thursday.

“If there had been a chairperson in place when the NEA’s budget appropriations bill was on the House floor, I don’t think the agency would now be looking at a $ 9 million reduction in its budget,” one insider said. “I don’t know that she can make a difference this year for the agency.”

Alexander’s likely nomination comes at a time when the NEA is as vulnerable to political attack as it has ever been. As a consequence of having no official chairperson or, for that matter, any public show of support to date from the Clinton administration, the agency has again become the focus of right-wing groups.

On Thursday, the Christian Action Network, a national lobby group in Virginia , called for the agency’s abolishment. Over the past week, the group has been actively lobbying freshmen congressmen to sway their votes.

“The NEA has proven time and again that it has no idea what it’s funding, whether it’s offensive photographs or obscene museum exhibits or money giveaways along the Mexican border,” Christian Action Network prexy Martin Mawyer said.

The last reference was to a project by three San Diego artists whereby they handed out brand new $ 10 bills to immigrant workers to make a cultural statement. The NEA gave the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, and the Centro Cultural de La Raza — the two organizations that commissioned the piece — a$ 250,000 grant in 1989.

Political insiders and arts organizations say that the attack is part of what convinced the House last month to approve a slashed NEA budget packet of $ 174.9 million, which cut the budget by 5%.

“What the new strategy from Capitol Hill has become is this threat that ‘we’re going to cut your budget every time you fund something we don’t like,’ ” said David Cole of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

“If the House of Representatives tries to punish the artist or the arts institution, that would be very problematic for them constitutionally. But if all they do is take away funding from the agency’s operating budget, there is no standing to take that to court. It’s going to have a very profound, chilling effect on the agency.”

Alexander, Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress, is currently performing in the Lincoln Center production of “The Sisters Rosensweig.” But she would be stepping into the role of NEA chair on shaky ground, Cole contends.

“The administration has made it difficult for anyone to fight this battle, because they’ve already undermined the agency,” Cole said. “They did that when the Justice Dept. appealed the 1992 decency ruling.”

The ruling, handed down by U.S. District Judge Wallace Tashima, called Congress’ decency clause (included in every NEA grant application) unconstitutional. The Justice Dept., under attorney general Janet Reno, appealed it in April.

“In order for Jane Alexander to make a principled defense of the agency to Congress, and in order for her arguments to work, the agency has to be free of content restrictions,” Cole said. “That’s what Judge Tashima said, but the administration has already given up the high ground with this appeal.”

Obviously the strength of an agency chairperson has a lot to do with the amount of backing he or she gets from the White House. The same is going to be true of Alexander, many believe.

“If Clinton announces her nomination through some press release issued from the White House, that will definitely be a weak signal,” said former NEA chair John Frohnmayer. “It would be far less effective than if he were to bring her to the White House and stand beside her to make the announcement.”

Even the timing of her announcement could have a profound effect. Insiders say the timing will depend on when Congress votes on Clinton’s budget/tax plan, which the House passed Aug. 5.

Saturday, Frohnmayer said, “is the day you announce when you want to bury something.”

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