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Tuesday, May 15, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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You won't know the name, but head of NEA makes art happen

Seattle Times music critic

If Dana Gioia sounds confident and optimistic, he has good reason: The chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts since November 2002, he has just been unanimously confirmed for a four-year second term. He sees the confirmation as evidence that "Congress is confident in the direction we're taking."

He hasn't gotten where he is by courting controversy. In a group interview Monday, prior to his appearance as keynote speaker at the annual ArtsFund luncheon, Gioia explained why he hasn't courted the public spotlight in promoting his own views: "If I shoot my mouth off and deny a lot of kids a chance to see the theater, I'm an idiot."

It's all about arts access and political consensus for Gioia, 56, who repeatedly used the term "a new conversation" to describe his process as NEA chair.

"In the mid-'80s and early '90s, we were mired in the culture wars, which almost paralyzed funding for the arts," Gioia said, referring to the infamous controversies about NEA-funded exhibitions of works by such artists as Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. "But now we have created a new national conversation about the arts, based on substantive issues about the funding of arts and arts education."

NEA funding — cut in half during the period of the "culture wars" — has been built back up gradually each year of Gioia's tenure. The chairman says he is optimistic that the current $125 million will be "rebuilt to the previous level"; the highest funding level was $174 million.

How will it be restored? By putting together interesting new projects and then looking for funding for something that's already starting to work well. An example: "Shakespeare in America," an initiative that not only serves 3,000 high schools in 1,600 cities across the country but also (with $1 million from the Department of Defense) has brought performances of the Bard to 44 military bases. Gioia says he can go into the office of any member of Congress and refer to the Shakespeare in America project in a specific high school, even a specific teacher, in their home district.

"We're not saying, 'Give me money, and I'll do this.' Instead, we start something and do it and make it a success. Then we ask for money."

In Gioia's view, the NEA is "out of direct political control, as a semi-independent public agency. We are as apolitical as possible. Our role provides leadership and catalytic funding. We also have the power of convening people from all over the country for initiatives; providing information, and providing validation" for arts groups and artists.

Gioia, a Bush-appointed Republican, does not himself censor or veto any grants decided upon by the NEA panels, but he admits that "if I see something I think is just dopey, I will take it off." (He wouldn't elaborate on the record about the "dopey" grant proposals.)

"I don't answer hypotheticals," he says, when asked about whether he would have yanked the controversial art works that fueled the earlier "culture wars."

"I won't be put in the middle of an 'outrage people or censor art' question. My focus is what connects us, not what divides us."

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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