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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Jane Alexander : Defending the Arts Endowment From the Left and the Right

October 02, 1994|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." He spoke with Jane Alexander while the NEA chair drove from San Francisco toward the Silicon Valley

President Bill Clinton may have had the soothing power of celebrity in mind when he nominated actress Jane Alexander to head the controversial National Endowment for the Arts. In the Washington halls of power, senators and representatives are the VIPs, but when a genuine Hollywood movie star shows up on Capitol Hill, even veteran committee chairmen have been known to swoon. Alexander plays down the importance of star power, but so far she has charmed some of the NEA's most vocal critics. Even Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) deemed her "a straight shooter with the best of intentions."

Alexander will need more than good intentions to rescue the NEA from the mire of controversy and neglect that characterized it during the Reagan-Bush years. The agency--which is designed to operate as an investment banker for the arts--is hobbled by a declining budget and is the target of critical sniping from both the left and the right. The vast majority of the grant money it distributes goes to mainstream symphony orchestras, regional theaters and art councils. Yet, most of the press generated about the NEA concerns its funding of a handful of artists whose work is characterized by some, like Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), as anti-family, anti-religious and obscene.

Alexander says she's determined to defend her agency's right to support diverse and sometimes disturbing artwork. But she's also campaigning to change the image of the NEA, emphasizing the broad cultural contributions and even the economic impact of the agency.

Alexander is 54, the mother of four children and a respected actress who never expected to become a bureaucrat. By all accounts, she's tackled the job with the same intensity she brought to roles in "The Great White Hope" on Broadway and to "Testament" on the movie screen. In a bid to get her message heard, she's promised to visit all 50 states before the end of this year--she spent the past week barnstorming through California, this week she'll be in Kentucky.

In an interview on the road between San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, she talked about redefining the role of the NEA, how she handles her critics, and the difference between legitimate and political theater.

Question: You've just gotten your budget approved by Congress--how did you do?

Answer: The budget was cut by 2%, which puts us at $167.4 million, down from $172 million. I would have liked to have gotten a budget at least as big as last year's, but Sen. Byrd (chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee) wasn't happy with some of the grants we made last year, so . . . .

Q: But you must have done something to change Sen. Byrd's mind, because he originally wanted to cut your budget by at least 5%. What did you do to calm his concerns?

A: I sat down and talked with him. He had earmarked certain programs for cuts--programs presenting visual arts and theater--and I pointed out that it would be punitive to cut funding to so many wonderful visual artists and theaters in the country. And I think his own constituents came to the fore, as did arts advocates across the country, and he backed off.

Q: You must either have a great deal of charm or remarkable skills of persuasion to garner compliments from Jesse Helms.

A: Maybe it's because I have a dialogue with him. I pay attention to him. He knows where I'm coming from and that I don't see things the way he does. But at least we correspond. You know, half the time all you have to do is pick up the phone. Many times, all it takes is just answering your critics. Because there is so much distortion of the facts, it's very important to set the record straight.

Q: Your budget works out to less than 65 cents per person in the U.S, and it's less than the amount a much smaller country like Britain spends on the arts. Do you think it's ironic that so much time and legislative effort is spent debating a relative drop in the bucket?

A: I think it speaks to the power of the arts in the country to move people one way or the other. People have strong feelings about what the arts should do. And the arts are very visible. In most of the agencies in the government, the American public could not tell you what's going on. But in our case, when certain organizations or individuals choose to isolate specific works of art they don't find appealing, or that they find offensive, then it gets picked up by the media, because it excites people. And that's just what art should be doing--it should move people, be able to make them think and wonder. But I want to stress that at the NEA we have two criteria that our panels look at when making grants--artistic excellence and merit.

Q: Do you think that by accepting public funds an artist should be willing to modify or moderate his or her artistic vision?

A: I think that would be extremely detrimental, not only to the vision of artists, but to what the arts do for society.

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