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November 28, 2002

Politics of the NEA, part II


As I mentioned in my last posting, the NEA was created in large part under political pressure from established arts organizations; from the politically active, wealthy individuals who raised funds and sat on their boards; from the film industry; and from labor unions like the American Federation of Musicians and Actors’ Equity, many of which were associated with the then-languishing New York theater industry. The whole question of the agency’s goals had been left essentially unaddressed in the legislation creating the NEA, other than by such meaningless phrases as

The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.

The infant agency was a tabula rosa—and thus, in political terms, its budget was up for grabs.

There was not much to squabble over in the first few years, however. The Johnson administration, whose ardor for supporting the arts had dropped off sharply after it became clear that the arts community vociferously opposed the War in Vietnam, had asked never asked for anything more than token (i.e., under $10 million) appropriations from Congress. Paradoxically, that set the stage for a huge increase in funding under Johnson’s Republican successor. Nixon, on taking office, had appointed Nelson Rockefeller’s protégé (and ex-mistress) Nancy Hanks to head up the NEA. Hanks, like the good bureaucratic empire builder she was, recommended a significant funding increase for the NEA in Nixon’s first budget. This would have been a merely predictable but empty gesture except that Nixon’s political advisor Leonard Garment supported Hank’s plans. Garment felt that the increase

…would have high impact among opinion formers…Support for the arts is, increasingly, good politics…you will gain support from groups which have hitherto not be favorable to this administration… [T]he key is in the headline. Doubling won’t do when the money is peanuts—a bag of peanuts becomes two bags of peanuts.

The ever impish Nixon, conscious that he was viewed as a cultural bumpkin, agreed, and on December 10, 1969, asked Congress to approve $40 million for arts and humanities for fiscal year 1971. Hanks then went to work to gain congressional approval. She began by committing most of the requested new money to museums and symphony orchestras, the groups best organized to apply pressure in Washington. Hanks stirred up support by visiting orchestra and museum boards to chat about what they might do if she—and they—got the money. And she delivered in return for their support: throughout her tenure the NEA’s expanded budgets amply rewarded established non-profit art organizations. Museums received nothing in 1970 but more than $9 million in 1974. Orchestras received $2.5 million in 1970 and more than $16 million four years later.

In lobbying for her agency Hanks seldom dwelled on what she called “the great philosophical importance of the arts,” and instead worked to ensure that every congressman whose vote was needed heard from important, supportive constituents. One of Hank’s key allies was Jack Golodner, a Democratic labor lawyer who had become a lobbyist for the American Council for the Arts. Together Golodner and Hanks had people in every state, setting up a telephone tree to mobilize calls and letters, as well as a newsletter, Word from Washington. Funding for the endowment continued to grow throughout Hank’s tenure, eventually reaching $100 million for FY1977.

America's Greatest Art Patrons: Nixon and Carter

Under Jimmy Carter the NEA became more blatantly a patronage scheme. Carter’s appointees to the National Council on the Arts—a body of “arts luminaries” who were supposed to advise the Chairman on grants but in reality merely rubber-stamped staff recommendations—included representatives of unions, state and local arts councils, advocates for various disciplines, trustees of arts organizations, corporate patrons, and arts managers. In short, the Council was becoming a collection of advocates who made no pretense of representing any constituency other than various powerful interests within the culture industry. Alice Goldfarb Marquis points out that this was clearly recognized at the time:

…[National Arts] council member J.C. Dickinson, director of the Florida State Museum…worried that the endowment’s priorities and spending plans came mostly from the “professional segment of the cultural community” and wondered whether “these pressures represent[ed]…the demands of the American people."

Livingston Biddle, an aide to Senator Clayborne Pell who had worked to pass the legislation creating the endowment, became Carter’s choice for Chairman of the NEA. Biddle was a shrewd enough administrator to spot the NEA’s main weakness. He noticed that the vacuum created by NEA’s lack of a clearly defined artistic purpose had been filled by an incestuous relationship between its staff and the arts organizations it funded. Each program area at the agency drew its professional staff from the field it financed, to which they would return after their Washington stint. Together with the “volunteer” panelists—also from the same “field”—who reviewed grant applications, the program staff had essentially become advocates for the funding of “their” art institutions. In short, in practical terms, the NEA had become the creature of its grant recipients.

Intending to at least muffle this dynamic (although what he hoped to replace it with is unclear) Biddle gathered all program directors and informed them that they should consider moving on if they had been there five years or more. Alice Goldfarb Marquis notes that

Biddle suspected that those who served longer had become too involved with their fields and that they were playing favorites among their clients, while losing touch with the public’s needs. When the constituencies of various programs angrily protested, “it convinced me that I was right,” said Biddle. “I saw grants to the same organizations year after year…”

But Biddle didn’t reckon with the power of recipients of arts welfare. Using the very money that the endowment had provided to aid their organization and maintenance, the arts service organizations vigorously lobbied Congress. A new umbrella group for arts lobbying was formed in 1977, the American Arts Alliance. Its membership at first was restricted to such first line organizations as the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the Guggenheim Museum, but eventually its membership grew to more than four hundred institutions. Headed by Ann Murphy, whose Capitol Hill experience went back to the early 1960s, the alliance soon became a dominant force for the arts in Washington. Its representatives sat on NEA grant review panels and testified before congressional committees—and, notably, outlasted Biddle and his “reforms.” By FY 1981, the NEA’s appropriation reached its real dollar (i.e., adjusted for inflation) peak of $160 million.

The NEA’s lack of a political program for the arts it sponsored was, of course, also a standing invitation for others in the arts community to pursue their political agendas. In 1977, the Gay Sunshine Press applied for and received $40,000 for an alternative publication featuring illustrations of group sex among men and sex between men and animals. Johanna Went was funded by the NEA, starting in 1983, for a series of performances with props such as dildos, giant bloody tampons, and three-foot turds. In 1985, Thunder's Mouth Press received $25,000 to publish, among other novels, Saturday Night at San Marcos, a description of child molestation showing the children’s enjoyment of the sex games. A 1985 NEA fellowship recipient, Frank Moore, performed "Intimate Cave" at Furnace Theater where he told the audience to remove their clothing and touch each other. In 1987, a grant to the Furnace Theater helped pay for Cheri Gaulke's performance of "Virgin," in which she conducted a mock-religious service in the nude. As Ms. Marquis notes:

By the 1980s, it seemed as though no expression…could get the slightest rise out of art patrons beyond sentimental, perhaps nostalgic, references to a long-dead avant-garde…With the art public all-tolerant, and the wider public disinterested in the arcane and baffling works of contemporary artists, only one audience remained to respond in the classic manner to the strenuous provocations…[of these] artists—Congress.

I’ll pick up the story of how this played out in my next posting.



P.S. The NEA’s appropriations history, graphically displayed (although not corrected for inflation) is available here.

posted by Friedrich at November 28, 2002


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