"Our survival has been secured," National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chairman William Ivey told members of The Creative Coalition (TCC) in New York last week.
"We're focusing our energies now on the shift from ensuring our survival to moving forward and determining what to commit ourselves to. That's the exciting part," Ivey informed the audience of arts and entertainment professionals.
The current annual agency budget stands at $98 million, and President Clinton has proposed a $50 million increase for FY2000.
While the NEA's new Challenge America program has been well-received, "we're in a budget process mired in partisan conflict and caps on spending on domestic programs," says Ivey. The five-part plan would funnel the additional $50 million in funds to: (1) arts education; (2) services to at-risk youth (such as arts after-school programs); (3) the preservation of cultural heritage; (4) access to the arts in under-served geographical areas; and (5) arts partnerships with other organizations and corporations. However, Ivey has managed to make tremendous headway on Capitol Hill, owing to his prior 27-year tenure as the head of the Country Music Organization. Consequently, some of the more conservative members of Congress, who often hail from parts considerably south and west of Manhattan, feel comfortable around him and believe he speaks their language. "It clouds the vision of our opponents," Ivey says of his grassier roots.
Apart from his own ability to swing votes, the main thing that seems to have shifted political opinion polls in favor of federal arts funding is what Ivey calls the NEA's move "from arts entitlement to community service." The "three-and-a-half-step" review process, wherein applications are examined by peer panels comprised of other artists culled from all parts of the country, remains the same. But individual artists with the exception of the literature and folk arts disciplines are no longer eligible for grants. Now, only arts organizations such as theatre, dance, and opera companies, as well as museums are eligible for NEA grants.
Offering examples of the shifting arts funding priorities as the NEA moves into the next century, Ivey sees future grants going to teachers for art training which will have lifetime impact on students; to symphony orchestras to develop afterschool programs; and to artists-in-residence who will go into the schools.
One of the NEA's current and future aims is to find out how the Internet can interact with arts organizations such as performing arts groups. Are these companies what Ivey calls "bastions of reality" where obviously, nothing can substitute for a live theatrical performance-or can they learn how to use the Internet to create virtual art-by appealing to the "anything you want, in your home, on your schedule" approach to consumers?
Ivey emphatically believes that "the challenge [facing arts organizations and artists today] is to have a coherent, shared message. We need to connect a professional artist's lifelong commitment to the arts with community. The more we connect with the economy of cities, the more we build value. Economic impact has taken arts in America a long way."
The word "community" would seem to be the "open sesame" to federal funding. And while not everyone in Congress is riding the NEA bandwagon, the wildly vocal right-wing naysayers of the early 1990s have retreated to the fringes of the Republican party and no longer have the votes or the clout they once had. More moderate Republicans, considered by arts funding lobbyists to be "fence-sitters," are now willing to listen to what Ivey and supporters of the NEA have to say. They won't promise to vote an increase to the Endowment's coffers, but the fact that they are willing to entertain the concept of federal funds for entertainers and entertainment, is "huge progress from just a few years ago."
"We're in a very, very strong environment right now in gathering commitment to federal funding to the arts. The atmosphere is a good one," Ivey stressed. "Stay tuned to see how the process within that atmosphere works out."
The Creative Coalition which hosted Ivey will do more than stay tuned. Led by star-caliber performers including Alec Baldwin, Blair Brown, Christopher Reeve, and Ron Silver, the coalition proved active on Capitol Hill the last couple of years. It voiced strong NEA support before a conservative Congress wanting to scrap the agency, but which in the end couldn't garner the votes.