Agency to devote increase to 'American' program

WASHINGTON — Relations between the National Endowment of the Arts and a Republican White House haven’t been this cozy in decades.

President Bush Thursday proposed an $18 million hike to the NEA’s bottom line, boosting the government art program’s overall budget 15%, the largest increase in 20 years. Agency would devote a most of the increase to a new program, “American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius,” a tour designed to give citizens in all 50 states an appreciation for U.S. artists and their legacy.

First lady Laura Bush announced the request at a White House news conference and praised the new NEA initiative and its focus on teaching art appreciation in schools.

“I’m especially pleased at the program’s focus on arts education, as it is crucial that the knowledge and appreciation of our cultural legacy begins in our schools,” she said.

The generous request signals a sea change in political attitudes toward the government arts program, once targeted for the budgetary chopping block by Republicans such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Jesse Helms.

Last year Bush requested about a $1 million increase for the agency and Congress bested the White House by approving $7 million, raising the agency’s annual budget to $122.5 million — up from $115.7 million but still tens of millions of dollars below the agency high watermark 25 years ago.

“It’s wonderful news,” said NEA spokeswoman Felicia Knight. “It demonstrates the merits of the ‘American Masterpieces’ program and the value of art to America.”

Some boost foreseen

House Appropriations spokesman John Scofield predicted Congress would approve a healthy boost for the arts agency even if Congress does not approve the full $18 million request. In an attempt to contain the ballooning federal deficit, Bush is insisting that Congress hold all non-defense, non-domestic security spending increases to less than 1% of last year’s overall levels.

“For the last several years, there has been broad bipartisan support for a $5 million increase for the NEA,” he said.

But Scofield said there’s no guarantee the $18 million raise would pass muster with all the other cuts appropriators will have to make this year.

“Everyone likes to say cut, cut, cut, but then they want $18 million here and $18 million there,” he said.

There are still a handful of social conservatives in Congress who take on the NEA from time to time, but they don’t have the political muscle they did in the mid-1990s. Back then, the NEA’s budget was slashed after several prominent Republicans railed against NEA grants to fund photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, with his explicitly gay imagery, and Andres Serrano, who depicted a crucifix floating in urine.

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