In a sweeping revision of its big-bucks challenge grant program, the National Endowment for the Arts will focus on projects aimed at promoting excellence in the arts rather than on building endowments and working capital of major arts institutions.
For the first time, state, regional and local arts agencies will be able to participate in the challenge program. So will other organizations involved in media, publishing, recording and education. Awards to projects will be made on a one-time-only basis, but the projects will have to be designed to have lasting impact.
Challenge grants traditionally range up to $1 million and require a 3-to-1 match over a three-year period.
"In a time of flat budgets for the national endowment," NEA Chairman Frank Hodsoll said from Washington, "it's important to have projects that can make a long-term difference, separate from our (other current) programs.
Under the old challenge program, he said, the field of grantees essentially narrowed down to museums and orchestras.
The Challenge III program takes effect in fiscal 1988 (beginning Oct. 1, 1987), although the first grants will not be made until September, 1988. There is still one more round of grants to be made current challenge guidelines in September under the fiscal '87 budget.
Hodsoll said the program is designed to interest private and public partners in investing "in projects with a potential to make a difference in the arts. Our aim is to assist the highest levels of excellence and deepen and broaden access and appreciation of such excellence. It is our hope that this revised challenge program will strengthen the cultural environment of the country."
The new program has become a point of some confusion and concern among major arts institutions. But the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, which previously opposed the program, now backs it because of a few modifications.
Earl A. Powell III, director of the County Museum of Art, which received a $1-million challenge grant for its capital and endowment program last September, said he doesn't know how the new program will affect institutions such as his.
"You're not going to have a sense of this until you see the kind of projects they award," he said.
William Wingate, executive managing director of Center Theatre Group, said that "the jury will be out for a long time to see how the (new challenge process) works."
Joanne Kozberg, vice chairman of the Music Center board of governors and a member of the California Arts Council, worried that major institutions would lose flexibility in making long-range plans, which challenge grants helped provide.
Meanwhile, the January issue of American Theatre tackled the subject, under the headline: "Launching Challenge III: Will NEA revisions weaken institutional support?"
On the other hand, Gary Young, chairman of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and executive director of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, said: "The larger drift of the whole challenge grant program is much more accommodating to the kind of initiatives that states would look at, as well as some of the needs of the states' constituents.
"It's opening up a program that's never been accessible to the states, and has not been accessible to many of the clients of the states. We're talking about mid-sized organizations, smaller organizations, artists' organizations, and also it allows for new configuration of those kinds of organizations to work (together) . . . on a major partnership."
With the concept of partnership, Hodsoll managed to turn around state agency concerns about their not being allowed to compete for private funds. By combining with private groups, state arts agencies will now automatically have access to private contributions.
"Thus the match would be distributed among the partners," Young said. "Private funds could be commingled with public funds. This gives states the latitude to invent partnerships that would relieve that matching burden."
However, endowment officials point out that not only can major institutions receive grants for appropriate projects, but that arts institutions overall still receive nearly five times more in grants awarded under specific disciplines, such as music dance and theater, than is granted under the challenge program.
While the challenge program amounts to $20 million annually, in the current fiscal year more than $90 million in other NEA funds is devoted to arts grants in specific disciplines.
As an example of a project that might qualify under the new program, Hodsoll cited one that would bring major recordings of American music out of the vaults, create new American music and develop a distribution system for them.
Another might be in museum conservation, where a new program would "identify and develop conservator experience," while a third might focus on a state arts agency working with dance troupes in developing a touring project.
Hodsoll also hinted that he would be active in seeking organizations to mount the kinds of projects the endowment believes are needed.