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Navigating the Road From Nashville to D.C.

Arts: William J. Ivey, the NEA's new chief, believes his tenure with the Country Music Foundation gives him a background Congress can appreciate.


Country music got the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign into hot water, when soon-to-be First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton offended country fans and a large segment of American women by declaring: "I'm not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette."

But now, Clinton appointee William J. Ivey, who in June was sworn in to replace actress Jane Alexander as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is (with all apologies to the late John Denver) thanking God he's a country boy.

The son of an English teacher and a social worker from Calumet, Mich., Ivey, 53, ran Nashville's Country Music Foundation for 27 years before coming to Washington to head the federal arts agency. His degrees in history, folklore and ethnomusicology helped forge the direction of the foundation's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which is accredited by the American Assn. of Museums. He has also served as an appointee to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Ivey says his link with America's musical grass roots is part of what leads him to predict a smoother road ahead for himself than for Alexander, who spent her tenure locked in a desperate battle for the agency's survival--a battle that kept federal arts funding alive, albeit in a drastically reduced form, following a 40% funding cut in 1996.

Note a recent quote from the House majority leader, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, a longtime NEA foe, of Ivey's ties with country music: "That's got to make him a good man, doesn't it?"

"I think that it has definitely helped," acknowledged Ivey during a recent visit to Los Angeles. Ivey, an amiable, professorial sort with snow-white hair and round glasses, describes himself as "definitely not an inside-the-Beltway person" and is still getting used to the ways of Washington.

"Certainly, there are some other things in the external environment that have helped the agency," he continued. "I think a strong economy helps us; I think the fact that the NEA was attacked over the past few years and survived those attacks indicated to Congress how strong the grass-roots support for the agency was.

"If you take that entire mix, then throw in somebody like me, who is kind of grounded in the grass-roots and popular culture, that all together makes a package that maybe allows us to make some progress."

Three years ago, House Speaker Newt Gingrich threatened to "zero out" the NEA, harking back to the agency's funding of projects by controversial artists, among them the late Robert Mapplethorpe in the late 1980s. This year, in contrast to past years of dispute, both the House and Senate agreed by wide margins to maintain the endowment's current level of funding at $98 million.

Some observers attribute this show of support to recent reforms limiting the NEA's grant-making authority (most grants to individual artists have been eliminated), and a Supreme Court ruling in June that said "decency" can be considered in awarding federal arts grants.

Some attribute the renewed support of the NEA more directly to Ivey's public endorsement of that decision. Ivey's position is that the directives from Congress do not contradict the agency's longtime procedure of subjecting grant applications to peer panel review. Asked about the decency issue, he dodges the question: "We said all along that, by bringing together those panels, we had exactly the kinds of diverse points of view that Congress had talked about in its specific language directed at the agency," he said. "And, to our delight, the court basically agreed with that.

"After all those years of debate and court action, we were able to proceed as we had been already. What we feared was some kind of drastic reorganization, or reorientation. That didn't occur. It's not as though language was imposed and we have had to do anything different. I was very pleased."

At least in Ivey's opinion, the immediate outcry from artists involved in the long-lived censorship debate, led by performance artist Karen Finley, was more muted than in previous years--though, just hours after the ruling came down, Finley screamed onstage at a New York performance: "I'm a loser! I'm a [expletive] loser!"

"I think that virtually every party to the process felt it was a good outcome," Ivey said evenly.

Ivey added, however, that he does not intend to take a passive approach, planning to push for budget increases for the year 2000 and vowing to find a palatable way to bring individual artists grants back to the NEA.

"I think that that's a business we need to find a way to get back into," he said. "I don't think anybody wants to do it the way we did it in the past, but I think this gives us an opportunity to come up with a new way."

One of Alexander's goals when she took the NEA post in 1993 was to have a conversation with Gingrich. After years of trying, he acquiesced after taking some heat for agreeing to meet with country singer Garth Brooks, but not with Alexander.

It may be another indicator of the changing congressional climate for federal arts funding--or the political power of country music--that Ivey is already on the speaker's list for a friendly chat. "I had a brief conversation with him at a White House picnic, and he said: 'Call me, I want to get together, I have some ideas,' " Ivey said.

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