With new Congress in town, arts org draws up plans

If there’s one word you’re more apt to hear, over and over again, from arts orgs in the coming months, it’s “jobs.”

With the House’s new Republican leadership preaching as-yet unspecified cuts to all domestic discretionary spending, it’s probably not out of line to assume that those cuts will include government funding for the arts.

The National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s largest single arts funder that funnels support to orgs as varied and wide-ranging as local theater groups, the Sundance Institute and public television’s “Great Performances,” will have to withstand the winds of austerity to maintain its appropriation level, which so far is running at $167.5 million this fiscal year. That follows a steadily rising allotment over the past decade after the drastic cuts that came in the mid-1990s.

appropriation level, which so far is running at $167.5 million this fiscal year. That follows a steadily rising allotment over the past decade after the drastic cuts that came in the mid-1990s.

NEA chairman Rocco Landesman has traveled across the country in a kind of whistle-stop tour to promote programs that tie the arts to economic development, and in talking of one NEA program, he rather shrewdly told lawmakers last year that he’d challenged his staff to “fund at least one arts education project in every Congressional district.”

Jamie Bennett, NEA’s communications director, says that org execs “very much look forward to working with the members of our subcommittee and all the members of Congress.”

But Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, one of the most prominent arts advocacy orgs, says, “I am worried, because when they talk about across-the-board budget cuts, good programs can get caught up in … sweeps like that.”

On the day the new Congress was sworn in last week, Lynch’s org sent out alerts to its members urging them to write to lawmakers to “educate the largest congressional freshman class in decades about the profound role the arts play in spurring economic growth and job creation.”

Celebrities customarily have been asked to testify for arts funding on Capitol Hill, but Lynch’s org has been enlisting economists and even former military officials to make the case in recent years. He’s been talking of government arts support in ways he hopes will strike a chord with conservatives — namely that federal, state and local support make up just 9% of arts budgets, and that the money acts not as a “subsidy,” but as “incentives” that help trigger growth from the private sector.

What is also worrisome to national arts orgs is that the funding cuts are exacerbated by the cutbacks at the state and local levels, along with a slowdown in private funding, all coming at a time when so many new lawmakers are riding into town. Last fall, Heritage Foundation fellow Brian Riedl put the NEA on his list of $343 billion in suggested cuts for 2012 to counter “unsustainable” budget growth.

Yet what is unclear is whether the age of austerity also will evolve into a culture war. There certainly have been recent flareups when it comes to public funding of journalism, such as last year’s Juan Williams firing at NPR. A National Portrait Gallery flap over a video display that included footage of ants crawling over a crucifix led to the museum pulling the display after some Republican leaders complained and inferred that government funding could be in jeopardy.

Back in 1995, lawmakers who were part of the Newt Gingrich revolution targeted the NEA, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, igniting a bruising battle that targeted controversial works of art (some deemed it “porn”) or programs labeled elitist.

The NEA was saved, but with 40% cut from its budget and a pullback in grants to individual artists, the agency was largely in shock.

As yet, those same dynamics aren’t in play. For one, the Democrats, albeit pared back, still control the Senate, perhaps providing a check on more draconian drives to pare funding. For another, it may be too simplistic to conclude that support for the arts can always be discerned by partisan stripes.

In their most recent results, Americans for the Arts gave grades of F or low marks to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and influential House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for their support for the arts. But Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), ranking member and now chair of the appropriations subcommittee that has overseen NEA funding, earned an A.

Moreover, Lynch says that for the most part, many state and local arts programs that faced elimination altogether last year were saved, albeit in scaled-down form.

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