The National Endowment for the Arts has been referred to, in budget cutting terms, as “low-hanging fruit.” In other words, it’s just the type of federal program that can withstand cuts — as happened in the mid-1990s — without much of a political price to pay.

With the new Congress, and a drive to slash spending, even for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year, arts orgs are worried that the federal outlay for the arts will be in jeopardy.

But there’s hope that 2011 won’t look like 1995, the height of the culture wars, and that enough progress has been made in expanding the list of defenders of public support for the arts, whether via education or jobs or neighborhood revitalization.

“I think the arts are overcoming the image that they are something frothy and non-essential,” says George Stevens Jr., co-chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Here’s my story that ran in the print version of Variety over the weekend, which shows some of the ways that groups are preparing to counter the calls for across-the-board austerity.