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The Boston Phoenix See Jane Run

Ms. Alexander Flees The NEA

By Jason Gay

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  It was the role of a lifetime. In the fall of 1993, shortly after starring in a Broadway comedy, actress Jane Alexander found herself center stage in Washington, D.C., tapped by President Clinton to chair the National Endowment for the Arts. The part was challenging and intense. Alexander, the first working artist to lead the NEA, had been thrust into a meaty Capitol melodrama, with her organization cast against a rabid Republican Congress vowing to sink the agency once and for all.

The GOP almost stole the show. During Alexander's four-year tenure, the Republican-led Congress sawed the NEA's annual budget nearly in half, from $166 million in 1993 to its current $98 million allotment. The cuts slashed funding for arts programs around the country. Here in Massachusetts, NEA grants fell from $6.3 million in 1993 to a little over $3 million this year. Congress also pressured the NEA to stop awarding grants to individuals, because in the past such stipends had funded some controversial works of art. Today, NEA money must go to artistic organizations and cannot be given directly to actors, painters, musicians, or other artists.

Through all the turmoil, Alexander, a Brookline native known for her steely demeanor both on stage and off, focused upon survival. When she announced last week that she will step down when her term ends before the end of the month, she was praised simply for keeping the agency alive. "She did an amazing job under fire," says Bruce Marks, artistic director emeritus of the Boston Ballet. "With anyone else, we might have lost the endowment entirely."

Indeed, there's little doubt that Alexander did a gutsy job of protecting the NEA. But as she bows out, the American arts community remains in crisis. An NEA report released this week, titled "American Canvas," concludes that existing public and private resources cannot meet the financial needs of the country's widening pool of artists and artistic organizations. While putting some of the blame on America's commercialized culture, the report also blasts the artistic community for an elitist image that alienates many people. This pattern of alienation, the report states, made it politically feasible for conservative D'Artagnans to slash the federal arts budget and eliminate individual grants.

As Alexander departs, it's time for the NEA to absorb this critique and reexamine itself. Recently, a Senate-House committee authorized the endowment to explore alternative means of funding its mission. Though most of the discussion so far has centered on private-public fundraising, there's also an opportunity for a broader reassessment of government's role in the creation of culture. Such discussion is critical. As the embattled artistic community seeks to improve its image, the government needs to decide whether it will champion the dreams of American artists, or abandon them entirely.

To Alexander's credit, she recognized the need to reconnect the art world to American people. Shortly after taking the NEA's helm, Alexander embarked on a 50-state, 200-plus-community tour, espousing education, multiculturalism, and accessibility. She was determined to remake the NEA's controversial image from Mapplethorpe to Middle America.

The programs Alexander liked best were grassroots, localized ones, such as South Boston's Revolving Museum. Now 12 years old, the museum specializes in bringing art to low-income communities; its leaders often arrive in neighborhoods aboard a decorated ice-cream truck filled with art supplies. The NEA gave the Revolving Museum $15,000 this year, the smallest grant it awarded to a Boston organization -- but that was enough to fund an educational program called "Wonders of the World," which teamed 600 children with dozens of the city's best artists.

"If the government really wanted to eliminate crime among inner-city youth, they would continue to support programs like this one," says Jerry Beck, the museum's artistic director and founder. "But without that support, city kids simply won't get to do art."

From a political standpoint, Alexander's art-for-art's-sake tour was a savvy move. "She demonstrated the endowment's impact on small communities," says Jeremy Alliger, artistic director of Boston's Dance Umbrella, an NEA grant recipient. Alliger says the endowment chair's travels were a good way to "end the garbage about the NEA just supporting elitism and all that."

Though Alexander's populism played in Peoria, it got mixed reviews from the bicoastal, and often hypercritical, art establishment. Some worried that as the NEA chief tried to placate Congress, she was sacrificing fine art for school-sponsored finger-painting. In one memorable jab, Partisan Review editor Edith Kurzweil quipped that Alexander was converting the NEA into the "National Endowment for the Arts and Crafts."

But everyone agreed that Alexander's endowment desperately needed more money. Without proper funding, today's NEA operates like a ship full of holes, unable to move forward because its leaders are too busy bailing water. The situation in the broader artistic community is similarly panicky. "I think you have fewer people entering the art world, and you have a lot of artists doing safer things," says Anne Hawley, director of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and former chairman of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. "There's a deeper, more fundamental thing going on here, which is that the people who are creating don't have enough [support] to deepen and develop their work."

Still, as the new NEA report points out, philistine conservatives can't be blamed for everything. It's easy to demonize the likes of Jesse Helms, but federal funding, while important on principle, has never amounted to more than a pittance. Culture shouldn't be paralyzed by the whims of congressmen, and it doesn't have to be. It's time for the artistic community to stop wringing its hands and devise creative solutions to bring the American art world into the 21st century.

One possibility is for the NEA to partner with the private sector in an arrangement similar to the ones that fund other major cultural enterprises, like the Olympic Games. The art world has a long tradition of private patronage, and big business can always make an important contribution. But the endowment must use caution before turning to corporate America for help. The private sector usually funds the mainstream and the successful; it might balk at continuing the NEA's crucial (though diminished) support for experimental, less commercial art.

Another option for the NEA may be to foster new cooperation among the country's local arts organizations. The "American Canvas" report praised efforts by artistic nonprofits that have formed consortiums in order to pool resources and raise funds. A report on the study in Monday's New York Times cited the Delaware Arts Stabilization Fund, which brought together eight of the state's biggest arts groups to raise $21.5 million in the late 1980s. The NEA could help establish regional artistic consortiums throughout the country, while using its centralized position to promote a national arts agenda.

But Robert Brustein, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre and a long-time defender of federal arts funding, has an even more radical idea. Brustein suggests that the government extend the window in which artists' estates are entitled to collect posthumous royalties, adding 25 to 50 years to the current 75. Royalties collected in the extended period would pay for a national arts program. Not only would such money come directly from the American artistic community, he says, but it would come without the strings of private-sector investment.

"You'd have billions within 25 years," Brustein says confidently. "And that way the endowment would still be a government endowment, and wouldn't have to beg for money."

To direct such ambitious strategies, Brustein would like to see a pit bull installed as Alexander's NEA successor, someone to jump on tables and make a stir. "I hope we'll get a fighter," he says.

There's a mild barb in Brustein's comment: though he praises Alexander's "indefatigable" leadership, it's no secret that he had some trouble with her polite brand of populism. But he's right that the NEA needs a fighter down in Washington. Federal arts funding is at a crossroads -- it will either regenerate itself or fade entirely from the scene.

Jane Alexander recognized those stakes.

"Make no mistake about it, this debate over public funding is a question of values," she told a Detroit audience a couple years ago. "On one level, it's a question of what kind of government the people want. On another, it's a question of what kind of culture we want to leave our children. But the loss of any of these programs diminishes us all."

Jason Gay can be reached at jgay@phx.com.


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