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Last year, NEA gave grants to 3,695 applicants.
This year, it expects to fund 1,600-1,800 applicants.
In 1997, it probably will aid only about 800.

Still under the gun, NEA and NEH
severely curtail grantmaking

Originally published in Current, March 25, 1996

By Jacqueline Conciatore

As the appropriations cycle begins anew on Capitol Hill, Congress is signaling that the arts and humanities endowments may not survive beyond 1997. Endowment supporters, meanwhile, are hoping voters will send in a more sympathetic Congress this November.

During a recent House appropriations subcommittee hearing, Chairman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) raised the prospect of liquidating the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) after fiscal 1997; at one point he asked NEA Chair Jane Alexander if most of her requested $136 million budget would be consumed by the cost of layoffs if the agency were eliminated. Alexander pointed to support for NEA in the Senate and White House. "The request level doesn't include liquidation,'' she said. "I don't believe this will happen.''

But even an NEA ally, Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), told Alexander she was being "very optimistic'' to "envision going beyond 1997.''

NEA is operating with less than two-thirds of last year's budget this year, and expects to make only half as many grants.

Alexander told the House subcommittee that media grantees including Great Performances, American Masters and Live from Lincoln Center this year will receive about $1.4 million, one-third the $4.3 million they got in 1995.

With uncertain election outcomes ahead, predictions about the endowments' future are unreliable. What is known is that the NEA is losing some key Senate supporters in this term: Sens. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) are all retiring.

And the Senate is where agencies' hope currently lies. Last year, when the House and Senate were negotiating NEA and NEH's appropriations for fiscal 1996, lawmakers agreed to disagree on the agencies' future. House Republicans--some of whom had hoped to obliterate the endowments immediately--said funding through 1997 was all they would yield. The Senate in the compromise report said it "took strong exception to the House position.''

Because Congress hasn't passed authorization bills for NEA and NEH, their opponents can easily derail appropriations by raising a "point of order'' on the floor, which automatically prevents a vote. Many unauthorized agencies are funded via the omnibus Interior appropriations bill containing the endowments' line item, however; the shared vulnerability of legislators' interests can protect against points of order.

During the House hearing March 13, Regula noted the threat of a point of order and urged Alexander to speak to committees responsible for NEA's authorizing legislation. The authorizing committee in the House, headed by William Goodling (R-Pa.), has quietly put out a bill that is only slightly kinder than the majority position; it would end funding after fiscal 1998. But lawmakers have not scheduled the bill for floor action. In the Senate, reauthorization committee Chair Kassebaum has a busy year and no plans to put out a bill this year, Alexander told Regula.

Alexander gave a strong defense of NEA at the hearing. The arts scene, once accessible only to the privileged, has flourished and spread to the larger public with the help of the endowment, she said. The number of dance companies in the U.S. has increased from 37 to 300-plus, she said, and orchestras from 58 to 1,000-plus, while the number of people who attend live theater in a year has increased from 1 million to 55 million.

NEA critics have successfully identified NEA with controversial art, but fewer than 40 of more than 100,000 grants have caused problems, she said. Alexander's elimination of "subgranting''--awarding money to regional arts agencies that in turn hand out grants--and Congress' elimination of open-ended seasonal support have made the NEA accountable for every dollar spent, she said. No agency operates without mistakes, and NEA shouldn't be shut down for those it has made, she noted--"You don't close down the Defense Department because of Tailhook.''

"We're pretty worried"

Last year's House-Senate compromise funded NEA at $99.5 million--a 39 percent cut--and NEH at $110 million, a 36 percent cut. But while those numbers are being used as spending targets this year, they have never been officially approved. President Clinton vetoed the omnibus appropriations bill that contained those allocations. The House failed to override the veto, and now the Interior bill is tied up in White House-Congress budget battles. Clinton is seeking an additional $10 million for each agency. The endowments are operating under a series of temporary spending measures called continuing resolutions.

For the next fiscal year, unless something quite unexpected occurs, Congress will appropriate some money to NEA and NEH. Both NEA and NEH have put forth 1997 requests for $136 million.

The budget cuts have severely cut into the endowments' grantmaking capabilities. Last year, NEA gave grants to 3,695 applicants. This year, it expects to fund 1,600-1,800 applicants. In 1997, it probably will aid only about 800, according to spokesperson Ninny Cohen.

NEA has already awarded $60 million of its $84 million grant pool for 1996, according to Cohen. (The grant pool represents about 85 percent of NEA's $99.5 million federal allocation; roughly 16 percent goes to administrative costs.)

Grants already decided were processed under the NEA's old system that allocated sums to various artistic disciplines. Its new system has artists competing across disciplines in one of four categories: heritage and preservation, creation and presentation, education and access, and planning and stabilization.

The NEH--one of public broadcasting's biggest program funders--hasn't made any grant decisions this year. But under its new structure, media programs will now compete with museum projects for grants from a $10 million pool, with no formula mandating how much will go to each, according to spokesperson Jim Turner. Last year media producers competed only among themselves for $9.5 million in grants.

Producers have no choice but to hope the private sector will replenish the lost support. And each endowment has launched enterprise initiatives intended to develop new sources of private support. But a February report from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities says foundations indicate they may actually decrease funding for cultural programs, and that the size of individual donations to arts and cultural organizations is down. Overall, private funding for all charities has not surpassed 1989 levels, according to the report.

Helen Thorington, executive director of New Radio and Performing Arts, describes as "horrendous'' the difficulties her production company has encountered in seeking to replace lost endowment support. "The private foundations have not made up for any of this,'' she says. "They are if anything retrenching.''

Says Julia Low of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, "people call and say, where do we go for funding? And there's very few places to go. There's been a limited pool of foundations that provide production funds. At that level of the ecology, we'll see a decrease in the amount of work being produced.'' He expects smaller production operations will merge with other companies or disappear.

Even the big guys are worried. Ken Burns, who has won big NEH grants for The Civil War and Baseball, told reporters during a January press conference that he was concerned about financing his next big project, a documentary history of jazz. One of his producers said recently that the company has raised half of the $10 million Jazz budget, and hopes to get some funds from NEH, but is by no means considering it money in the hand. "It's definitely not a foregone conclusion,'' Lynn Novick says. "I don't want to say we will make the films no matter what happens, because that's not true. ... We're pretty worried.'' If Burns doesn't get NEH support, he will have to hit up foundations, she says.

Marshaling their nervousness

How public broadcasting would fare in the long term (assuming the endowments continue) under the endowments' new grantmaking processes is a big unknown. The first deadlines for NEA's new multidisciplinary competitions arrived in February, and the first round of awards for heritage and preservation projects are expected to be voted on by the NEA's National Council on the Arts in the fall. Intent-to-apply cards that artists send to the NEA are indicating that the bulk of grant applications--perhaps 80 percent--will be submitted in two categories: education and access, and creation and presentation.

The competition will be unprecedented. Applicants are limited to one request for money per year, in one category. Smaller agencies and production houses have voiced the concern that they don't stand a chance in the newly designed field. "What's going to happen when a panel takes New Radio and Performing Arts and puts it up beside MOMA (New York's Museum of Modern Art)?'' asks Thorington. Others have opined that the new process will be unwieldy at best, pitting such disparate venues as, say, architecture projects and opera performances.

But at a Feb. 13 National Council on the Arts meeting, A.B. Spellman, who oversees the agency's grants and panel review process, said that in recent travels around the country to explain the new guidelines to artists and agencies, he tried to "make it clear it's not the interest of the agency to cut off any one sector or favor large agencies.''

NEA staffers themselves have a lot of "unease'' about the new process, he said. "We will try to marshal our nervousness about how it works to make sure it does work properly,'' he said.

NEA has been urging agencies to collaborate and form consortia, though even that won't guarantee success in grantsmanship.

How grantmaking will shake out at NEH is equally unclear. The only certain thing, says spokesman Turner, is there will be a lot less money given out. "Virtually no application is going to get what they ask for,'' he says. As a broad funding principle, the endowment has decided it would rather give some money to a lot of applicants, "rather than a lot to just some,'' he says. NEH should be making some grant announcements in early April, he said.

. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: Ken Burns and other producers speak out for the endowments, 1995.

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