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Conversation: William Ivey

June 25, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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PHIL PONCE: The case involving decency standards and artist Karen Finley decided by the Supreme Court today is just the latest headline-making controversy for an agency that is now well used to being under siege.

The NEA has funded nearly 110,000 artists and projects in its 33-year history, but controversies over the content of some of that art– as well as questions over the very idea of federal funding of the arts-have plagued the agency for much of the last decade. Last year, the House of Representatives voted to eliminate the agency altogether, but a Senate panel voted to keep the endowment alive through the year 2002.

This year, the NEA see-saw continues. Last week a House Appropriations Subcommittee voted to eliminate the endowment’s funding. But today–in a surprise move–the full committee voted to allocate $98 million for the coming year. That’s down from the all-time high $175 million budget the NEA received six years ago. Into the battle now steps William Ivey, the new chairman of the NEA.

Ivey, age 54, was born in Detroit, Michigan. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan and a master’s in folklore and ethnomusicology from Indiana University. He’s taught at Vanderbilt University and is a guitarist, pianist, and also a pilot. From 1971 to this year, Ivey was director of the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, Tennessee.

That makes him the first endowment chairman who’s developed and run a nonprofit cultural organization. The Country Music Foundation, which has an annual budget of $4 million, is a research and advocacy group that runs the Country Music Hall of Fame. The group also publishes a country music journal and runs a small record label. It operates two historic sites–including a studio in Nashville, where Elvis Presley recorded.

Ivey’s been involved with the NEA since 1975, having chaired or served on numerous endowment grant panels. Since 1994, he’s served on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and was a major contributor to the committee’s report to President Clinton –Creative America–an analysis of American cultural life. Ivey is now the seventh chairman in the endowment’s history.

And he joins us now. Mr. Ivey, welcome.

WILLIAM IVEY, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts: It’s good to be here.

PHIL PONCE: What was your reaction to the Supreme Court decision upholding the NEA’s decency standards?

WILLIAM IVEY: Well, we were very pleased, because it certainly affirmed the overall procedures that the agency uses in terms of its grant review process and also I think gave the agency the latitude that it needs to really apply the diverse standards that Americans bring to looking at the arts and the processes of the agency. So we’re just fine with the outcome.

PHIL PONCE: Some artists are saying that the impact of this decision will be that it will limit their artistic freedom of expression.

WILLIAM IVEY: It shouldn’t do that, because one of the important things is that it doesn’t change the way this agency does its work. And we have refined our processes over the last five or six years, and we’re not going to have to make any changes in how we do business. So artists who have worked with the arts endowment in the past, I think, can continue to feel confident in our grant review process.

PHIL PONCE: That process includes a determination of what is or what is not decent. How do you make that determination?

WILLIAM IVEY: Well, it really doesn’t include that, include that determination. What we have stated all along and what we will continue to do is assemble a diverse mix of citizens and arts professionals from around the country.

And by the very nature of those gatherings, we will have the very points of view that it is required to have the kind of outcomes that I think Americans want in an agency that’s charged with locating quality, locating excellence, and nurturing the arts for all of the American people.

PHIL PONCE: And decency is a component that those panels will look at, yes, or will take into account?

WILLIAM IVEY: Well, it’s not an explicit part of their work. In other words, I think the court, very correctly, noted that this kind of standard really doesn’t preclude any particular piece of art being funded. All it does is indicate that certain things should be taken into account.

And we are confident that the kind of procedures that exist within the agency are exactly designed to make sure that many different opinions–many different concerns are brought to bear on this search for excellence and quality in artistic projects.

PHIL PONCE: Stepping back and looking back at the agency as a whole, why does the country need an NEA?

WILLIAM IVEY: Well, there’s a real role for the federal government in nurturing America’s living cultural heritage. And we’re really coming to the end of what has so clearly been the American century. It’s so clear that the arts are what Americans in families and in communities, in ethnic communities, use to present themselves to one another.

And it’s clear that our nation as a whole uses the arts, uses our creative character to spread the dream of democracy around the world. In many ways, our expressive life is democracy’s calling card. And so I think in an age in which there are so many forces in our society telling us that we’re really not one thing, we’re just many different things, the federal presence saying that the great process of accommodation and sharing and borrowing that has made our artistic life such a good reflection of our democratic experiment needs the federal presence to make sure that it’s strong, make sure that it’s healthy.

I think that that message probably resonates today more than it ever has in the agency’s history. And I think there’s a greater role for the agency than ever before.

PHIL PONCE: What do you say, though, to those who take the position that it should be the marketplace that determines which arts should flourish and which shouldn’t, and that it’s really not the government’s role to financially support the arts?

WILLIAM IVEY: Well, the marketplace plays a huge role in our overall cultural sector. Obviously, the entertainment industry, the publishing industry, those activities play a role in nurturing creativity and bringing a range of arts to the American people and spreading them around the world.

But there are those places, those particular projects, those parts of the country, those art forms, where the extra added element of that federal dollar can have a huge impact not only in making a project happen but bringing attention to an organization or to an activity and also bringing in all kinds of additional funding. So while the marketplace has an important role, it can’t do it all, and I think that the federal role is very, very important.

PHIL PONCE: Some of the agency’s critics in the past, congressional critics in the past, have called the NEA elitist. How do you respond when you hear that?

WILLIAM IVEY: Well, I think the agency has always sought out excellence, and that’s part of our mandate, and it’s something that will continue to be part of our mandate. However, I’m an Americanist by training. My background is in folklore. I’ve worked closely with the commercial music industry in Nashville. And folklorists know that artistic concerns, that the art of people is very, very important to identity, that they’re central to human life, and that they really, really play a very, very important role. So I think that the agency is very critical.

PHIL PONCE: Are you saying that there’s not necessarily a hierarchy in the arts, that one form of art is not necessarily better than the other?

WILLIAM IVEY: There is no hierarchy. I think that one of the challenges of nurturing the arts in a democracy is to look at the wide spectrum of artistic endeavor that we value. Democracy says we’re all in this together and that many, many diverse traditions have equal stature, that they all deserve support. You can find excellence in all those different traditions.

But it doesn’t work in a democracy to say we have a single national culture, that one art form stands on the shoulders of another. I think it’s one of the challenges of arts funding in a democracy, it’s one of the reasons I think we struggle with issues around arts funding more than perhaps in some European societies that can claim a single national culture, but I think that makes the task perhaps more important and certainly more interesting.

PHIL PONCE: So what kind of arts should the NEA fund?

WILLIAM IVEY: Well, it should fund what’s excellent in the arts. And it should also fund those arts activities that can connect best with a federal presence. I think that if you look at our current arts reach program, which is designed to help bring federal grants to the 20 states that have been least served by direct NEA funding in the recent past, I think that’s a good example of an appropriate federal project. I think that Robert Pinsky’s favorite poem project is a wonderful, a wonderful program that the Endowment is supporting for the millennium that has truly national implications.

And I think we can also find exemplary projects that can be nurtured and then can be spread to other locales, so I think that there are many different ways that we can connect with all of these different traditions-folk, popular, classical-and do so very, very effectively.

PHIL PONCE: Why did you take this job?

WILLIAM IVEY: Well, I believe in federal public service. I think it’s important. I have been around the Endowment for many years as a panelist, and have been out in the field actually running a not-for-profit arts organization that from time to time was an applicant to the National Endowment.

I really care about the agency. I think its work is important. It has a passionate, committed staff, and even though it’s been a bit embattled over the recent past, I think it is stronger today than perhaps it has ever been in its history and the need for its role, the need for that federal role in nurturing America’s living cultural heritage, is greater than it’s ever been.

There’s a wonderful external environment right now with the end of the American century, the beginning of a movement into a new millennium that I think will bring America’s attention to issues of heritage and legacy to a greater extent than perhaps ever in our history. I think, given that environment, the current chair of the National Endowment for the Arts has a wonderful opportunity to, I think, move the role of this agency forward.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Ivey, thanks for being here.

WILLIAM IVEY: Thank you. It’s good to be here.