Arts supporters gather in D.C. to make case

The celebrities, artisitic directors and other advocates who descended on D.C. this week know that they face an uphill battle to ensure that federal arts funding remains at its current level. On Tuesday, they found just how hard it will be to make their case: Their congressional hearings were canceled.

House Republicans nixed a number of appropriations hearings this week as Capitol Hill leaders and White House officials engaged in tense negotiations to fund the government through the rest of 2011, with the possibility of a shutdown at midnight on Friday looming over D.C.

Cuts to the rest of this year’s $167.5 million budget for the National Endowment for the Arts are on the table, and the scope of those reductions is expected to serve as a template for NEA funding for 2012.

Despite the absence of an official hearing, lobbying org Americans for the Arts forged ahead with a Tuesday morning event in a House caucus room, where Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey and others read excerpts of their prepared testimony.

“Many people who are making the cuts don’t believe in the cuts themselves,” Baldwin told the gathering of hundreds of arts advocates. “They’re just speaking from an old, tired script.”

The NEA is the chief government grant-making org to arts and theater groups across the country. Through the years it has also funded a smattering of independent filmmakers and Sundance initiatives.

With similarities to the situation that federal arts funding faced in 1995, when the Republicans took control of Congress and some freshmen called for the elimination of the NEA, the arts lobby this year is pushing back against the idea that federal support for the arts is “frivolous,” as Sarah Palin characterized it recently. That assertion has had resonance among some members of the House’s freshmen class, some of them members of the Tea Party who came to Washington determined to reduce the size of government.

Baldwin compared the current budget battle to that of the 1990s, when he also testified before a congressional committee. Back then — the height of the so-called “culture wars” — federal support for controversial artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley gave ammunition to critics calling for the elimination of the NEA.

Those controversies, Baldwin said, “don’t exist today.” He said the motivation for the latest proposed cuts was “laziness.”

On Monday night, Spacey also was the featured speaker at Americans for the Arts’ Nancy Hanks Lecture, an annual event to inspire arts advocates as they lobby members of Congress.

“We’re focusing on the bricks and mortar and ignoring the heart and soul of who we are as a country,” said Spacey. He also showed a trailer from an upcoming documentary he produced, “Shakespeare High,” about high school competitors in a Shakespeare Festival, that he hopes will underscore the need for funding of arts education programs, which are also facing cuts.

Advocates for the arts have been trying to cast the funding issue as one centered on jobs and competitiveness, and say that when an arts project gets a government grant, it is kind of a stamp of approval that leads to other giving. Most NEA grants require matching dollars, which can act as an incentive for private donors to invest. They also cite ample instances where government funding was cut back but private donors didn’t make up the difference.

“We have to make that case and be relentless about making that case, said Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, noting that “there is an element that has come into Congress talking about not funding anything, arts included.”

Charles Segars, CEO of the Ovation Channel, co-sponsor of many of the advocacy events, talked of fighting back against “purposeful misinformation” about the arts, often characterized by critics as elitist.

While Lynch and others refrained from making the issue a partisan debate, others were not so restrained.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who sits on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees arts funding, said, “This is not about saving money. This is ideological.”

But he didn’t blame the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who remains in support of the NEA.

“Am I the only Republican here?” Simpson quipped at one point at the event. (Actually he wasn’t: Also present were Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Montana)).

Although Simpson acknowledged the House GOP opposition, he said he doesn’t think they are “in the majority” of Congress.

“There are a number of Republicans that feel the same way (about supporting the arts) and a majority in Congress feels the same way,” he said.

Some cuts are likely, and as dire as the situation may seem, it won’t necessarily turn out as it did in the ’90s, when the NEA was saved but its budget was slashed by 40%.

NEA chairman Rocco Landesman told Variety that he didn’t know where the arts budget stood as talks continue, but said that it won’t be as severe as the more than $40 million in cuts that originally passed the House in February.

“I think this is in flux day to day,” he said. “The Republican leadership seems to be committed to the NEA and I am optimistic this is going to work out all right.”

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) also was optimistic.

“I have seen similar situations in the past 25 years,” he told Variety. “We cannot go back on funding for the arts. We have come too far. We may do some strange things on the House side, but I think the Senate will save us. It is my hope that if there are any cuts they will be minor.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more