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Individual Appeal At Arts Budget Hearing

March 11, 1987|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Actor Richard Kiley, calling America "an adolescent country" culturally, interested only in "muscle flexing and instant gratification" and "cost-effective" arts, made a dramatic appeal before a House subcommittee Tuesday for support of individual artists.

Opening the House appropriations interior subcommittee's new round of budget hearings for the National Endowment for the Arts for the next fiscal year, Kiley told of meeting a young tenor four years ago "with a great classical operatic voice" who sang arias on a Manhattan street corner with a cassette tape for background.

"I subsidized him for a while, other people pitched in," but it was not enough, Kiley told the hushed hearing chaired by Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill). Eventually the man, then 26, drifted away from his art, and "he got on dope, and he vanished out of my life," Kiley said softly.

"People who are gifted should be able to get a grant," the actor who is currently starring in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" at Ford's Theatre here said. That might be the difference, to "finding the beginning, to finding their way in the arts."

"Is there enough money in the (endowment) budget for the individual?" Yates wondered. He said he was going to put that question to NEA Chairman Frank Hodsoll when he appears before the subcommittee on March 26.

The overwhelming proportion of endowment funding goes to support institutions; an estimated 8 1/2% of about $93 million in grants to disciplines in the arts went to individual artists in fiscal 1986, which ended last Sept. 30.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the testimony before Yates' subcommittee concentrated on the financial state of the arts in theater, music, dance and museums, and the picture that was painted there was bleak, too.

Peter Zeisler, executive director of Theatre Communications Group representing professional nonprofit theaters, said that since 1981 when the Reagan Administration took office, a survey of 45 theaters shows their endowment support reduced from 7% to 4.5% of theater budgets. When Yates noted that the inflation rate has gone down, Zeisler cited the high costs of producing and other expenses.

"To this day, there is not one theater in this country," Zeisler said, "with a large enough endowment to use any income to pay operating expenses. And we're 30 years old. Dance is the new kid on the block. (An official of) one of the four largest theaters in the country told me recently he hoped to be able to pay their leading actor $40,000 a year."

Then, pointing to Kiley, who will be 65 this month, Zeisler said: "If you want to play a game, find me a middle-aged actor who hasn't gone to movies or television. We can't afford to keep him working 52 weeks a year. . . . Because the film and television world is in California and the theaters are around the country, actors can't do both."

Zeisler suggested that endowment support at 7%-10% of a theater's budget would begin to make the difference. For the last six years, while the endowment has essentially been operating on flat budgets, theater grants, like those for most other disciplines, have remained essentially the same. In fiscal 1981, when the overall endowment budget was $159 million, theater got $10.8 million; in the current fiscal '87 year, with the endowment budget at $165.1 million, theater receives $10.8 million.

Instead, he said, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Yates' hometown, has lost $50,000 in endowment support over the last three years, and in the same time frame has had to cut 10 actors. Empty Space in Seattle, which Zeisler called "one of the most important small innovative theaters in the country" got a 23% cut in endowment support over a three-year period, and had to cut a week off the run of each of its plays, cut the number of plays from six to five, and cut the size of the cast. Pittsburgh Public Theatre, he said, suffered a 41% cut over three years and had to drop a production of Eugene O'Neill's "Hairy Ape."

He noted that now American playwrights are writing plays with smaller casts, but that the overall effect has become "a boring attrition. We are being reduced to mediocrity."

When Yates asked Zeisler why the British theater is flourishing--pointing to the sold-out production of "Les Miserables," which opens on Broadway on Thursday--Zeisler noted that production costs are much less in England.

Cathy French, executive director of the American Symphony Orchestra League, reported that nearly two-thirds of regional orchestras, including symphony and chamber orchestras, reported deficits in 1985-65 compared to one-third in 1981-82. She said "expenses have skyrocketed," cited an 8.8% increase in advertising and promotional expenses alone. While the interests in orchestras has grown, she said, "there is no way to have Tampa (Fla.) do in three years what it took Boston 106 years to develop," French said, referring to the Boston Symphony.

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