WASHINGTON — National Arts Endowment Chairman Bill Ivey called it the most important meeting with members of Congress since the arts agency’s budget was slashed in 1996.
“The problem grants have ended,” declared Ivey, who told a House funding panel that the agency has reinvented itself in response to Congressional critics.
That reinvention means that the NEA is no longer funding controversial artists such as the late Robert Mapplethorpe who became well known to conservatives, particularly Republicans, for his homoerotic photography.
In fact, the NEA no longer funds artists directly, instead sending money to regional arts agencies who then mete out the money on a local basis.
The NEA has also worked hard to ensure that its money is spread out across the country as much as possible, Ivey said: Another complaint of conservatives is that the NEA seemed to award a disproportionate amount of grant money to New York and other urban areas.
“We come before you today as a different agency, a new agency,” Ivey said. He and other supporters of the NEA, including the Creative Coalition, which visited D.C. this week to lobby for the arts agency, hope Congress will add $50 million to the agency’s budget.
More, smaller grants
The number of grants has risen even though the budget has been cut, according to Ivey. Not surprisingly, however, the average grant has fallen from $55,000 in 1997 to less than $25,000 this year.
Ivey’s claim that he has created an “entirely new NEA” seemed to reach sympathetic ears in Congress.
“I don’t think anyone on this committee disagrees that you are a reformed agency,” said Interior Appropriations subcommittee chairman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio). “Obviously, we haven’t had any egregious problems that plagued the agency in the past.”
The one note of concern about the NEA’s new direction came from Rep. Maurice Hinchey (R-N.Y.) who worried that the agency was responding to political rather than culture concerns.
“Arts have a responsibility to be somewhat divergent,” Hinchey said, adding, “Any society where arts are restricted by the instant political climate, that society is suffering.”