A House-Senate conference committee last week approved a $7 million increase for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), finally funding the agency at $105 million for fiscal 2001.
At press time, the full Interior Appropriations Bill, which includes NEA funding—like most of the other 10 appropriations bills before Congress—had yet to receive approval, after which they'd be sent to President Clinton for signing into law.
A compromise reached in conference earmarked the NEA funding increase for outreach and arts education in rural and underserved areas. Conservative House Republican leaders, who in the past have wanted to scrap the arts agency, opposed the increase unless Senate conference members agreed to earmarking the funds.
According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), the increase's designation corresponds to priorities proposed in the NEA's two-year-old Challenge America initiative.
Challenge America identifies projects which could benefit from increased NEA dollars, including arts education, arts access, positive alternatives for youth, cultural heritage and preservation, and community arts development.
National arts-advocacy groups, including the American Arts Alliance and Americans for the Arts, collaborated with NASAA in organizing grassroots efforts to gain the funding increase, the NEA's first to make it through the appropriations process since 1995.
While the NEA budget still ranges about $10 million below that of New York City's arts budget, arts funding advocates can see the federal funding increase as a solid victory. Still fresh on their minds is a Republican-controlled House that, during the mid-'90s and Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," mounted a determined drive to end arts funding.
First, Congress slashed the NEA's budget by 45%, causing Jane Alexander, then the NEA chairman, to reorganize the agency. The House even voted to not fund the NEA in 1997, but the Senate held firm in conference, and the agency finally received $99.5 million. But that figure still maintained the deep cuts lawmakers had made a couple of years earlier.
"We're extremely pleased with this increase," Jan Denton, executive director of the American Arts Alliance, told Back Stage on Monday. "It's not nearly the amount of money we would like to see, but it represents a breakthrough with Congress. And we hope this represents a future with additional increases for this agency."
Denton indicated that arts-funding advocates will continue attempts to get federal arts monies back at the level before the Gingrich-led cuts.
"I attribute this breakthrough to the grassroots efforts over the last six years," Denton stressed, "to arts supporters who educated their members of Congress about the importance of the NEA. And, in particular, to the constituents in the State of Washington."
Washington State's Sen. Slade Gorton chairs the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee which initiates the arts funding process in the upper house. The Republican included the $7 million increase for the NEA. Gorton is up for re-election this year.
Congress is scheduled to adjourn on Oct. 6, a date still in doubt since the lawmakers need to approve most funding bills.
Still, Denton doesn't see much hope for two more pending arts bills. One proposal would allow taxpayers to roll over funds from their individual retirement accounts to charitable organizations without suffering a tax penalty. The second bill would give artists a charitable tax deduction equal to fair-market value for contributing "literary, musical, artistic or scholarly compositions created by the artist" to public institutions such as museums and libraries.