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Jane Alexander Envisions a Conciliatory Role for NEA : Arts: Clinton's nominee to head the embattled agency sails through her confirmation hearing.

September 23, 1993|MARK BOUSIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Actress Jane Alexander, President Clinton's nominee to head the National Endowment for the Arts, promised Wednesday to work to resolve past disputes over arts funding but said she could not guarantee the agency would avoid future conflicts.

Alexander, whose nomination won the unanimous endorsement of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, said the NEA should not be judged solely on the basis of a few grants made to artists whose works are considered offensive by conservatives.

"A handful of controversial grants has taken the focus from the thousands upon thousands of grants that have enhanced the lives of millions," said the 53-year-old nominee. "When judging the National Arts Endowment, we must look at the complete picture."

The NEA has come under fire in recent years for providing federal funds to controversial artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photography deals with homoerotic themes. The NEA's last permanent chairman, John Frohnmayer, was fired by former President George Bush last year after repeated clashes with conservative organizations and their congressional allies. The agency has been administered on an interim basis by Ana Steele since Clinton took office.

Alexander, whose nomination has been received warmly by key players on both sides of the arts funding dispute, has generally declined to discuss in detail the criteria she would use to screen funding requests. But she suggested in her testimony that some forms of artistic expression are likely to be considered provocative by some viewers.

"The very essence of art, after all, is to hold the mirror up to nature," said Alexander, who has received awards for her past dramatic roles on television and the stage. "The arts reflect the diversity and variety of human experience. The artist often taps into the very issues of society that are most sensitive."

She indicated that as chairwoman, she would attempt to play a conciliatory role in mediating future funding controversies.

"I respect the right of people to be heard--the voices of those who are disturbed by art and the voices of the creative community," she said. "This, after all, is the greatness of our democratic system."

A committee aide said the panel voted quickly because "there was such broad support on both sides of the aisle" for the nomination. Supporters predicted she will easily win confirmation when her appointment is taken up by the full Senate, which could occur as early as Thursday.

The senators, several of whom praised Alexander's appointment and likened her confirmation to a "coronation," made little attempt during the 90-minute hearing to elicit her views on the conflicts that have plagued the agency. She was not, for example, asked about the Clinton Administration's decision to appeal a federal district court ruling that struck down as unconstitutional a congressional attempt to impose "decency standards" on the agency.

Asked about the decency ruling after the hearing, Alexander declined to comment. But in her testimony, she promised to "follow the statutory guidelines on funding to the very best of my ability to insure that grants are given for the highest degree of artistic merit and excellence."

Alexander said her priorities as chairwoman would include making the endowment "a driving force for education" and forging an "enhanced partnership" with the private sector to increase arts funding.

Alexander's career as an actress spans three decades. An NEA-funded theater production of "The Great White Hope" helped launch her career in 1967, and she later won a Tony award for the role. Her movie credits include "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "All the President's Men," and she won widespread praise for her portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt in the television production "Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years."

Alexander received four Oscar nominations and won an Emmy Award. Her most recent stage performance was a starring role in the Broadway production of "The Sisters Rosensweig."

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