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Depoliticizing the NEA: Time to Call a Truce in the Culture War : Endowment: Under George Bush, grants were used as part of an intraparty struggle in the GOP to vanquish the moderates.

February 21, 1993|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is an art critic for The Times

Amid growing speculation over who will be named chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts--and when--a more fundamental question lurks: Can the Clinton Ad ministration effectively depoliticize the beleaguered federal agency?

In unprecedented ways, the Reagan and Bush Administrations made the hitherto independent NEA beholden to political interests. Last year, things got so bad that grant decisions were manipulated in a bald effort to shore up Bush's election-year standing among conservative voters.

Currently, three names are most often heard as likely candidates to head the NEA: Cynthia Mayeda, chair of Minneapolis' Dayton-Hudson Foundation; Sharon Percy Rockefeller, former chairperson of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and current president of the public-television station in Washington, and Deborah Sale, arts adviser to the Clinton transition team and long-time FOB (Friend of Bill). Whoever gets the nod will also have to rebuild the agency's integrity.

In one respect, the task will be easy, because the chairperson, as well as perhaps 10 of the 25 members on the National Council for the Arts, which oversees the NEA, will be appointed this year by a Democratic President.

It isn't that Democrats are necessarily more high-minded than Republicans when it comes to maintaining a separation between the arts and political diddling. It's that the bloody fight that shredded the once-proud NEA during the past four years was not a war between competing political parties, or even between liberal and conservative ideologies. It was a slaughter that resulted from an intraparty struggle, waged among Republicans.

The nation's so-called culture war, with the NEA as its first public battleground, has principally been fought within the GOP, between its conservative wing and its moderate wing. Reagan conservatives had tried, and failed, to abolish the NEA early on. The 1988 ascension of George Bush, looked on with suspicion by most conservative Republicans, didn't cheer their prospects for future success.

But Bush took his time naming a replacement for the departed Reagan-appointee to the NEA chair. Eight months went by. In the interim, inflammatory charges of blasphemy and obscenity were lodged against two recipients of NEA grants. Bush's delay had left the targeted agency rudderless and vulnerable.

Eventually he appointed Oregon lawyer John E. Frohnmayer--a moderate and a prominent Bush fund-raiser--to the top NEA post. The appointment was quickly met with a demand from conservatives that a "watchdog" be placed within the agency. Thus the new high-level post of senior deputy chairperson--a watchdog who was actually a mole.

Confidential NEA documents soon began leaking to conservatives within the White House. They also turned up in rabble-rousing newspaper columns by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. When Patrick J. Buchanan kept the NEA alive as a campaign issue in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Bush ousted Frohnmayer as a political liability. Trying to keep the NEA firestorm off the front pages, Bush gave away the store: He let the chairmanship be taken over by a conservative, who had been neatly moved into the senior deputy's slot.

A house divided against itself never has been able to stand. If, based on the merits of their political argument, Reagan Republicans were unable to dismantle the NEA from the outside, surely they could demolish it from within. The intraparty culture war, still being fought today, left the NEA a shambles.

The agency may be down, but it's definitely not out. That's because it's the enduring beneficiary of its own record of whopping success.

Since the NEA's founding in 1965, the arts in the United States have mushroomed into a $314-billion industry. However, the arts are unique among American industries because they're a mix of commercial and nonprofit entities. The latter often feed talent to the former, but rarely can individual artists or nonprofit organizations survive on their own.

The endowment has been instrumental in priming the pump of this extraordinary growth--every NEA dollar now realizes a 20-fold return in jobs, contracts and services--and the huge arts constituency knows it. So does Bill Clinton. If it is indeed "the economy, stupid," then in today's wobbly fiscal environment the pump needs priming more than ever.

Beyond the automatic separation of the NEA from the Republicans' internal slugfest, several things can be done to hasten its recovery. Here are four examples:

* Remove final grant-making authority from the chairperson. To avoid the gross spectacle of a chairperson withholding certain grants based on assessments of political expediency, final grant-making authority should be transferred to the National Council on the Arts. Their staggered, six-year terms at least minimize the possibility of partisan tampering.

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