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PERSPECTIVE

Too good to be true?

A proposed increase in NEA funding has a shellshocked arts community baffled.

February 15, 2004|Linda Winer | Newsday

That silence resounding through the arts community is the stunned kind. The sound you might detect, if you are attuned to the audiology of incredulity, is the mass dropping of jaws in response to President George W. Bush's proposal to increase spending on the National Endowment for the Arts by 15%.

Imagine this. The week before the president presented his $2.4-trillion wartime budget with its big domestic cuts and its historic $521-billion deficit, Laura Bush made the boggling NEA announcement at Washington's Old Post Office Building. NEA chairman Dana Gioia was there, as was Jack Valenti, who not only is the veteran chief executive of the Motion Picture Assn. of America but also -- I was astonished to learn -- the first lady's honorary co-chair of the "Shakespeare in American Communities" program. More about that after I stop to breathe.

Mrs. Bush declared that she and her husband "want every child to be excited about the arts." Who knew? She said that $15 million of the additional $18 million -- which would bring the NEA's fiscal 2005 budget to $140.5 million -- would enable the agency to develop a program called "American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius" without cutting into its current projects.

Current projects? If I sound disbelieving, history will cut me some slack here. The NEA, you might be forgiven for not wanting to remember, was one of the most-kicked political footballs of the past half-century. The Reagan administration tried to kill the invaluable arts-funding agency altogether. When that failed, the right wing of the Republican Party exploited a handful of inflammatory artworks to demonize the NEA and marginalize the country's perception of the arts.

Before her husband became vice president, Lynne Cheney, as chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993, led the assault. And who can forget the inspirational words of former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who declared for the record, "The artists and the homosexuals ain't seen nothing yet"?

When the Republicans took over both houses of Congress in 1995, they cut the NEA's modest budget from $167 million to just under $100 million and kept the budget flat for the next five years. The traumatized NEA was intimidated beyond recognition.

The money has been creeping up, without much fanfare, since Bush took office. After bruising years of opportunistic culture wars, however, I can't help worrying when things I hold dear turn up on the Washington radar screen.

Wary of the limelight

So why, when important segments of the GOP are complaining about Bush's election-year spending spree, would the president dare to wave millions of NEA dollars at Congress? His new budget proposes to cut 8.9% from the Environmental Protection Agency, 13.6% from the Federal Aviation Administration's budget for modernizing air traffic control equipment, and 25% from Amtrak. National parks? Forget it. Housing for the poor? Don't kid a kidder.

Sorry, but I cannot keep from fearing that the new elevated visibility of the NEA will put artists right back in the crosshairs. Granted, $18 million is considerably less than the $27.4 million that the Halliburton Co. (Vice President Dick Cheney's previous business) must repay the government after overcharging for meals served to our troops in Iraq and Kuwait. I don't know why, but such an outrage never seems to carry the same punch as a painting some congressman holds up to the TV cameras as sacrilegious.

But wait. What if Laura Bush really cares about the arts? What if the first lady, under cover of spousal privilege, has been working to support the uncontroversial NEA. How bad is that?

Bob Lynch, president and chief executive of Americans for the Arts, is upbeat. I'm surprised because, after all, this is the Washington-based advocacy group that runs those smart and snarky full-page ads that decry the lack of arts education by noting, "No wonder people think Martha Graham is a snack cracker."

Lynch sounds sincere when he says, "Laura Bush is particularly interested in the value of the arts and the value of libraries." He also contends that, over the years, the NEA has quietly gained more bipartisan congressional support. He appreciates my paranoia but says, "I haven't yet seen the downside."

Then he patiently explains something I've missed by dismissing the neutered NEA as pathetic cultural window dressing.

Since September, six professional theater companies have been bringing productions and workshops to what the NEA calls "underserved communities" and American military bases. These are not do-gooder pickup groups, but some of the country's best, including the Acting Company, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Guthrie Theater.

The "American Masterpieces" program would sponsor similar tours with artists from all kinds of disciplines. The name of master choreographer Paul Taylor has been unofficially mentioned so, clearly, the intentions are high.

While trying to process the credibility of Laura Bush and culture, I've been thinking about a play Tony Kushner is writing, "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy."

The first chilling scene was printed in The Nation last March. In this strangely sympathetic excerpt, a kindly Laura Bush is preparing to read from Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" to children who wear pajamas and bathrobes. The children are dead Iraqis who, instead of talking, open their mouths to make bird music.

"I'm sorry you're dead," she says sweetly, "but all children love books ... when a parent reads to a child, or any adult reads to a child, even if that child is dead, the child will learn to love books, and that is so, so important."

I worry that the attention suddenly lavished on the NEA will turn out to be just as unrealistic.

Linda Winer is chief theater critic at Newsday, a Tribune Co. newspaper.

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