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Sidney Yates

On 50 Years of Fighting for Arts Funding in America

September 14, 1997|Faye Fiore | Faye Fiore covers the National Endowment for the Arts and California affairs in Washington for The Times

WASHINGTON — When young Sidney R. Yates first campaigned for Congress in 1948, it was probably not apparent to the good people of Chicago that they were about to elect a man who would become one of the greatest champions of the arts America had ever seen.

Indeed, as Yates crooned for votes at a bingo game, accompanying himself with three chords on his oompah guitar, voters might have decided the most merciful thing they could do for the arts was elect him just so he'd stop singing.

But his victory marked the birth of a 50-year legislative career that would oversee the founding of the National Endowment of the Arts in 1965, shepherd its steady expansion over the next two decades and, most recently, help rescue it from extinction.

It was nearly 10 years ago that conservatives launched a crusade to strip the NEA of funding and shut it down, infuriated that federal money had supported what they considered obscene art by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, among others.

That the embattled agency has survived this long is due in no small part to the Illinois Democrat who, at 88, is still one of its most skilled and eloquent defenders--he once blocked a 50% NEA funding cut almost singlehandedly. His keen knowledge of parliamentary procedure has more than once outsmarted NEA foes on Capitol Hill, while his gentlemanly demeanor charms them. He has been known to quote Shakespeare during committee debates, seems to know the words to every song every written, and walks around his Washington office belting out everything from show tunes to folk songs to opera.

Now, the oldest and longest-sitting member of the House of Representatives--one of Congress' last New Deal liberals--is planning to retire at the end of this term. He leaves when his beloved NEA is most in danger. In July, the House passed a bill that would abolish the agency entirely while the Senate is poised to pass one that would fund it with $100 million--about the same as last year but far less than the $176 million it received at its peak, in 1992.

The differences will be hammered out in a conference committee bound to produce compromises that further restrict the endowment. Many say the NEA is already a shadow of its former self, operating from fear of congressional budget cutters, funding only those grant requests considered safe. Recent self-imposed reforms have reduced the agency's staff and restricted it from funding almost all individual artists.

While Yates is confident the NEA will survive the latest onslaught, he acknowledges the organization is a hologram of the one he helped found--an endowment that encouraged free artistic expression without fear of consequences and helped quadruple the number of orchestras, nonprofit theaters, dance companies and opera companies in the nation. But he prefers to reserve judgment on the state of the NEA until he sees what incarnation the Congress invents this time. As a member of the conference committee, he will be in the battle's front lines.

His colleagues are already lamenting the retirement of one of their most effective legislative weapons. If he leaves a legacy, it is probably one of stubbornness--"A lone voice can move mountains," he likes to say--and a deep sense of loyalty--he has been married to the same woman, Adeline, for 62 years, and has employed the same chief of staff, Mary Bain, for 50. The Yateses have one son, Stephen, an associate circuit court judge in Chicago, and three grandchildren, all musicians.


Question: You've watched the development of the NEA since its founding 32 years ago. What changes have you observed in both the arts community and in political circles that have caused this collision?

Answer: There has always been controversial art going all the way back to the time of the Renaissance. There have always been people who objected to forms of art. If memory serves, it was either Plato or Aristotle who was opposed to artists because they represented deviation from the usual norms of a society [who] were hostile to artists. I assume that those in power in succeeding times had the same impression, that the artists were not bound by the usual regulations or customs in a society, that they were trying to change things.

But [Robert] Mapplethorpe and [Andres] Serrano seemed to have stimulated some ministers to undertake the crusade against the arts. That came along at a time when there had been a very large drive to try to stop rap music and movies that were considered offensive. There was this atmosphere building up against a kind of so-called adult entertainment and it was felt that no tax dollars should be used for that purpose. That was the big cry: Let the participants in the art do what they want with their own money, but don't let them use tax dollars. Overlooked was the fact that the tax dollars were being used for very beneficial purposes for the most part and these were on a minimal basis.

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