Save the National Endowment for the Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts has an image problem. We all remember Mr. Serrano and his antics. Then came the outcry over AIDS-tainted blood that was supposedly used in an NEA-funded dramatic production (the blood turned out to be untainted; the NEA turned out to have contributed $150). And, of course, Robert Mapplethorpe had his moment in the sun.

Unfortunately, reactionary political groups and the mass media focus on isolated incidents like these and ignore the fact that virtually all Americans are touched in a positive way by the NEA. The NEA brings art and culture to the people. It keeps Americans in contact with art, it helps people who are artistically inclined to explore and expand their talents and horizons, it gives the deprived and disadvantaged among us access to the arts, and much much more.

Consider the following facts:

* Since its inception, the NEA has awarded over 100,000 grants; over 11,000 have gone to individual artists.

* During the 1990/91 school year, 13,000 artists-in-residence reached 4,000,000 students and teachers across America through NEA funding.

* Through the Federal/State NEA network, over 19 million children receive some form of arts education each year.

* From 1990-1995, a combined audience of over 335,800,000 people attended arts events that were either partially or totally supported by the NEA.

* Between 1990 and 1995, the private sector contributed nearly $4 billion towards NEA projects in matching funds.

* Older and disabled Americans are exposed to the arts through programs like Elders Share the Arts in Brooklyn, NY.

* Residents of rural communities are encouraged to learn about and enjoy the arts through a variety of programs such as one that sends chamber music ensembles to live, work, and perform in communities in Jesup, Iowa.

* Inner city residents receive arts training through programs like the Southeast Symphony Association which provides professional music instruction for young aspiring musicians in Los Angeles.

* People who cannot easily experience live classical music can do so through programs like the one that allows the Evansville Philharmonic to visit and perform in hospitals, churches, and nursing homes within a fifty mile radius of that Indiana city.

* The NEA provided assistance for the competition that chose the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

* The general population gains access to the arts through NEA funded television series such as "Great Performances" and "American Playhouse" which are seen by millions.

* A number of non-profit theater productions that have gone on to Broadway and Hollywood fame received NEA funding like "The Great White Hope," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Children of a Lesser God," "A Chorus Line" and "Annie."

*NEA grant recipients have gone on to receive 42 Pulitzer Prizes, 47 MacArthur "genius awards," 28 National Book Awards, 11 Obie Awards for Theater, and countless other distinctions.

Now consider the following three facts about life in America:

*The news media would much rather cover isolated controversial incidents than stories relating to any of the above information.

*Certain organized groups are doing everything in their power to shut the NEA down and they're making a good deal of headway.

*Since 1995, a number of the above programs have suffered either financial cutbacks or ceased to exist altogether.

The bottom line:

Many millions of Americans have been and continue to be touched in positive ways by the NEA. Its activities enrich the art content of our lives no matter who we are or where we live. At the same time, it helps the artistically inclined among us to discover, explore, and expand their talents and horizons. Numerous artists, musicians, authors, architects, designers, and other arts-related professionals whose work is now a part of our daily lives have received NEA funding at various points in their careers. They contribute to the music we hear, the movies we see, the television we watch, the books we read, the clothes we wear, the design and manufacture of our furniture and decorations, and the way our homes and buildings look.

Please don't allow tunnel-visioned reactionaries to dictate the cultural imperative of this nation. Out of 100,000 grants or 100,000 transactions in any business, surely a few are looked back upon as having gone bad or been ill-advised. Should we be tolerant on this point as regards the future of the NEA or shall we repeatedly insist that a handful of over-publicized exceptions comprise sufficient grounds to permanently withdraw all government funding for the arts? Remember-- the huge overall thrust of supporting the arts and allowing them to flourish in this country or anywhere else on the face of the earth is positive. Think about that the next time you hear someone badmouth the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Articles © Alan Bamberger 1999. All rights reserved.