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The Arts: A Congress Divided

July 23, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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CHARLES KRAUSE: From Independence Day celebrations in the nation’s capitol–to the voices of Harlem–to the bright lights of Broadway–the National Endowment for the Arts has helped support about 30,000 projects–large and small alike–in its 32 years of existence. The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance ensemble in Denver, for example.

CLEO PARKER ROBINSON: We are a product of the National Endowment for the Arts. And we’re a million dollar organization. And we came from nothing. And we got support from the National Endowment, and that was a ripple effect.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Most of the NEA’s projects have been well-received, but others have been extremely controversial: This 1995 theater performance in Minneapolis, for example, which involved blood and bodily injury–and this exhibit of homoerotic photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, which also kicked up a storm of conservative outrage.

Yet despite the controversies and congressional efforts to kill the NEA, last April, a blue ribbon committee appointed by the president called for an increase in federal funding. Arts Endowment Chairman Jane Alexander strongly supported that recommendation.

JANE ALEXANDER, NEA: What would be lost if the National Endowment for the Arts is gone? What would be lost is a sense of national pride. There would be no representative of all that we are as a creative nation.

CHARLES KRAUSE: But critics in Congress say that in an era of federal belt-tightening, the arts should be supported privately.

Last year, the Republican-led Congress cut NEA funding by one third, and this year, the funding battle continues. House Republican Leader Dick Armey recently called the NEA “the single most visible and deplorable black eye in the arts in America that I have seen in my lifetime.”

Last week, led by Armey and other conservatives, the House voted by a narrow margin to stop all additional funding for the arts endowment.

But today, a Senate panel voted to keep the NEA alive through the year 2002 and to increase this year’s $99.5 million budget to $105 million next year. President Clinton, on the other hand, has called on Congress to increase the Endowment’s funding by more than a third–to $136 million–and has threatened to veto any legislation the President believes treats the NEA unfairly.