Arts supporters find receptive ear in D.C.
Medill News Service
WASHINGTON — Presiding over the first congressional hearing on arts funding in 12 years, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks declared Tuesday that the "culture wars are over," causing an audience of optimistic arts advocates to burst into cheers.
In his opening remarks, Dicks, D-Bremerton, referred to the "dark days" of the mid-1990s, when the future of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) "was in doubt."
But Tuesday there were signs that that era had come to an end, as a panel that included James Raisbeck, chief executive of Raisbeck Engineering and a board member of several Seattle-area arts institutions, testified in support of restoring NEA funding to its level of $176 million in 1992.
Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and actor Chris Klein, of "American Pie" fame, were among the other panelists who testified.
Raisbeck went so far as to suggest that the NEA budget should be increased to $350 million from its current level of $124 million, to improve America's image abroad.
That brought a smile to Dicks, who, as chairman of the Interior appropriations subcommittee, will play a major role in bargaining for a larger NEA budget.
"Three-hundred fifty million makes the $176 million look more plausible," Dicks said after the hearing. He added, "We're going to have an increase. It's just a question of how large of an increase it's going to be."
About a decade ago, NEA appropriations were cut 40 percent. Since then, they have increased at a little more than the rate of inflation.
Congress cut the agency's budget, and some members tried to abolish it entirely in response to publicly funded art that was attacked as offensive or worse. The effect of the cuts on arts organizations in Puget Sound is difficult to factor.
Forty percent of NEA expenditures go to state governments, and Washington state has been able to obtain a greater percentage of federal grants recently than it had in the past. So while the NEA budget was cut, money flowing to Washington artists through the agency hasn't dropped precipitously.
A wide range of organizations in Seattle receive grants either directly from the NEA or through the Washington State Arts Commission, from experimental-performance groups such as On the Boards to the Seattle Symphony.
NEA cuts didn't prevent U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., from directing $500,000 to the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle as part of an economic-development package in 2005.
D. David Brown, executive director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, said NEA grants are still "an important part of funding streams that we have available."
He added that when "funding declines, particularly public funding, what suffers is access" because of cuts to community-service programs, education services and discount-ticket offers.
Only 2 percent to 3 percent of the budgets of most arts organizations come from federal funding, said Gretchen Johnston, the executive director of the Washington State Arts Alliance, who was in the Capitol for the annual Arts Advocacy Day.
But, she said, "that money has a way of leveraging other funding."
When businesses and individuals see that an institution has received an NEA grant, they know that "somebody has looked at this closely and has said this is a good program," she said.
Among the audience members who appreciated that a hearing on federal arts funding was taking place was Peter Donnelly, a longtime arts advocate for the Puget Sound region.
Monday, the former CEO and president of ArtsFund, a united fund of corporate arts giving, called the occasion "terrific."
Although the NEA has earned broader support recently in part because it has avoided giving grants to controversial artists, Donnelly said he didn't view that as a problem.
"The private sector has always been where the edgy artists get funded," he said. "The public money doesn't have to be used for that."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company