NEA Reputation Gets Turnaround

What a difference a decade makes.

Ten years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts (search) was a political football, with members of Congress lined up on either side, usually along party lines, to defend it passionately or call ardently for its demise.

The NEA survived, despite budget cuts and new internal finance controls. But most observers now agree — the NEA no longer seems to be a buzzword for Washington excess or immorality, and no one expects there to be a fight over its budget on Capitol Hill this year.

"We have huge bipartisan support in the House right now that was not always there," said Felicia Knight, spokeswoman for the NEA. "There are always going to be people who are philosophically opposed to supporting government funding of the arts. Those are the people we are never going to win over."

One of those people is Rep. Tom Tancredo (search), R-Colo. Tancredo, who unsuccessfully tried to cut the NEA budget in 2002, said the federal government "has about as much business being in the art business as they do running a bed and breakfast. It's mind boggling that at a time when Washington is swimming in red ink, Congress would even dream of asking overtaxed Americans to pay for someone's else's idea of art."

For now, even conservative groups that rallied hard against the NEA admit that the agency has fallen off the radar due to the seeming current lack of controversial grants. During the 1990s, critics often cited Andres Serrano's (search) "Piss Christ" — a 60-by-40 inch photo of a crucifix submerged in the artist's urine, and the late Robert Mapplethorpe's (search) 150-photo exhibit, which included sexually explicit gay and sadomasochistic erotic poses.

At that time, conservative Republicans like Rep. Dick Armey (search), R-Texas, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. — all gone from Congress today — threatened cuts and the agency's closure, calling NEA grants an inappropriate burden on taxpayers, and out of step with mainstream America.

Today, there seem to be no Serranos or Mapplethorpes to marshal that kind of attack, said Robert Knight, director of the Culture & Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America and a huge critic of the NEA 10 years ago.

"There seems to be little or no publicity about shocking grants … they seemed to have cleaned up their act," said Knight, who warns that controversy could easily return under a more liberal leadership.

However, he added, "They are moving out of the business of funding experimental art and that's a good thing."

Rep. Sue Myrick (search), R-N.C., who was a NEA detractor 10 years ago, said she has a renewed confidence in the agency, mainly because of its outreach to Congress, and its concerted effort to spread resources to more communities, national initiatives and higher standards for grant-making.

The agency's chairman since 2003, Dana Gioia (search), 54, a poet and scholar from California, has in particular won praise for sharpening the focus and polishing the image of the embattled agency.

"We had a very frank meeting right after he came and I said ‘the proof is in the pudding,'" recalled Myrick. "He said he had a very different objective for the agency and he's been carrying that out. I have faith in him to carry on that path."

The NEA spokeswoman said a series of national initiatives, like the NEA Jazz Masters, Shakespeare in American Communities and Operation Homecoming, which helps U.S. troops and their families write about their experiences, "provide programs of broad public reach and exposure so that more people are aware of what the NEA does and how it supports the arts directly and indirectly in their communities."

A mix of Gioia's initiatives and new funding requirements have spread out the nearly $100 million in grant disbursements each year to 99 percent of the communities in the country, or one grant for approximately every 750,000 people, added Knight.

Uncontroversial or unpredictable projects are the indirect result of a new system that no longer funds individuals or gives money without discretion, said Knight. Every grant is given to institutions, with specific projects laid out for the selection panel's approval.

Jonathan Katz, CEO of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (search), said the agency has mobilized support from a variety of former detractors, and the lack of controversy today has a lot to do with renewed public support.

Though the agency has gone "through extraordinary lengths to make the operation of the agency visible," and worked in partnership to design initiatives palatable to the government and communities, Katz said he doesn't think the NEA deliberately set out to please its harshest critics on the right.

"I believe that any of these [conservative] groups, if there was any political gain to be made, would still go through the programs and find something controversial with them," he said. "I just don't think the public is susceptible to that right now."

The NEA hasn't won over everyone, however.

But Judith Weiner, director of the Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations, said for better or for worse, the NEA has made a concerted effort to please the political powers that be in order to increase its budgets and to keep off the heat from Capitol Hill. She said the shift to funding institutions, rather than individuals, has left artists with even fewer avenues to get their work out into the mainstream.

"Would I like to see avant-garde stuff funded? Yeah, I would. I think that's an important part of the arts and its impact on its general foundation," she told "I would like to see more individual artists funded because they have a heck of a time getting funded and there are very few places to go."

Armey took an entirely different tack to show his continued displeasure with the endowment.

"It is fiscally irresponsible to continue spending on the NEA, which robs from the poor to entertain the rich, when other programs have a much greater claim to both need and effectiveness," said Armey, who now runs a pro-taxpayer group, FreedomWorks (search).

Supporters point out that the $121 million the NEA got in 2005 is a sliver of the $2.6 trillion federal budget, and much of the grants go to community and school projects. Still, David Boaz, vice executive president of the Cato Institute, said a philosophical argument against the government funding art remains.

"It's the same region we don't want the government funding religion," he said. "We don't want it to be part of the political process."

But for now, it is. The NEA budget, which had been gradually cut from a high of $175 million in 1992 to $99 million in 2000, is now on the rise, with the administration's 2006 proposal of $121 million. As part of the Interior Budget, the NEA appropriation has so far attracted no controversy and is expected to pass Congress sometime this summer.