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The Money's Also the Thing

With fund-raising so tough, nonprofit theater has increasingly stuck to safe fare. More federal dollars could mean more thought-provoking nights out.

July 15, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

Last month in Washington, President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, along with Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, attended "An American Celebration" at Ford's Theatre.

It was twang night in our nation's capital, the Bush inaugural shindig all over again. Jeff Foxworthy told some jokes. Preteen Nashville warbler Billy Gilman sang. The group SHeDAISY sang too. ABC-TV's Sam Donaldson, no longer officially a member of SHeDAISY, hosted the show, to be broadcast Aug. 18 on ABC.

During the event, Bush lauded Ford's Theatre as "a testament to public and private partnerships." He said it was a "model for the blueprint"--though "blueprint for the model" might make more sense--"of how government, corporations and individuals can cooperate to support the arts."

"It is right," he added, "for government to support such causes."

Within reason, of course. As long as nothing dicey or offensive or controversial is at issue.

Bush didn't add these caveats, but he didn't need to. These days they're a given.

At the gala, Bush quoted Abraham Lincoln, who said: "Some think I do wrong to go to the opera and the theater. But it rests me. A hearty laugh relieves me and I seem better after it to bear my cross." Referring to Lincoln at a Ford's Theatre gala is a textbook definition of a "Yes, but." Yes, but look what going to a play did for Lincoln.

The times in which we live, as much as any one administration can shape them, have done wonders for the word "private," as in "private enterprise." This is not the era of expansive civic-mindedness. No safety net feels quite as safe as it used to. "Public art" and "federal arts funding" aren't phrases public figures use with full confidence in 2001.

Look again at Lincoln's words, carefully chosen by Bush's careful advisors. They are comforting, even inspiring. The theater is indeed a place and an occasion for rest and relaxation. It can lift spirits, lighten a load, ease a burden for a few hours.

It can do all that, and it can do much more. It can provoke, challenge, even enrage. It can enthrall.

But such leaps require a certain degree of daring, which comes more readily with a certain degree of freedom from the bottom line.

This is where patronage on the federal level comes in. Or should.

Depending on where the hot air's coming from, political winds can shift at will. At the Ford's Theatre gala, a silent reminder of this looked on as Bush spoke of federal arts funding.

Her name was Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, sister agency of the National Endowment for the Arts. During her tenure, Cheney tried to eliminate her own agency while running it, owing to what she perceived as a terminal case of left-wing bias in its grants.

This is what's known as the fox middle-managing the henhouse.

Also known as the SOIFS (Shell of Its Former Self), the NEA is alive if not exactly hale. Owing to one too many political cat fights, the agency no longer funds individual artists. It no longer has the political nerve to risk offense. Its determinedly centrist value is now more symbolic than practical.

But it has value nonetheless. Bush's budget earlier in the year recommended the agency for flat funding of $105 million. After it is done winding its way through the House and the Senate, the NEA appropriation may end up with a $10 million increase over the initial recommendation, totaling $115 million. Sometime this month, the Bush administration is expected to name a replacement for outgoing NEA Chairman William Ivey.

It's a good time to remind ourselves that not every country thinks so little of its culture.

Take England, to whom the U.S. colonies used to answer. Earlier this year, the Arts Council of England boosted its funding to 337 million pounds for the fiscal year 2003-04. This is the equivalent of $472 million.

In rough terms, for every buck we spend on, say, the Mark Taper Forum or South Coast Repertory or the Geffen Playhouse, England spends four times as much on their counterparts. (Arts funding in the United Kingdom comes in part from money raised by the multibillion-dollar National Lottery.)

In England, under the directorship of Trevor Nunn, the Royal National Theatre has come under fire for playing it too safe, eyeing the commercial marketplace too intently. Its revivals of "Oklahoma!" and "My Fair Lady" have made plenty of money and will continue to do so in the commercial arena, both in England and the United States.

Some have questioned the place of such projects at a major subsidized house. "It is worrying that Arts Council money can be used to produce commercial theater," Peter Ainsworth, a Conservative Party official, said earlier this year,

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