To Be Or Not To Be

Congressman Mark Souder is a loyal foot soldier in Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's army -- a freshman from Indiana who is committed to slashing the federal budget. But last week, Souder found himself grappling with an unexpectedly unpleasant choice. Named to the House panel that will determine the fate of funding for the arts and humanities, Souder discovered that the Ft. Wayne Philharmonic in his district receives a $36,000 grant from that favorite target of conservatives -- the National Endowment for the Arts. Souder never thought much of the NEA, but he has a special fondness for the Philharmonic; one of its members taught him to play the French horn. Philharmonic benefactors were among his biggest campaign supporters. Will Souder join the crusade to kill the NEA? "I haven't made any final decisions," he says. "This is going to be difficult."

Souder's dilemma exemplifies how complicated the escalating fight over government support of the arts is going to be. Determined to drive down the deficit and grant massive tax cuts, Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey and other House GOP leaders have called for abolishing the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. At first glance, the outlook for the agencies has never been bleaker. "These three entities are going to have a very difficult time proving we can afford them -- even if they can prove we want them," says Republican Rep. Bob Livingston, the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. But all three agencies have strong grass-roots -- and well-connected -- constituencies. Last week arts teachers, public-television managers, symphony benefactors and actors like Christopher Reeve began descending on Washington to argue that a total cutoff would have serious consequences in members' districts. A new cultural-advocacy campaign, funded by a diverse coalition from museum directors to Hollywood producers, set up an 800-number hot line to paper Congress with hand-delivered mailgrams. "There are thousands -- if not millions -- of people who have participated in these programs, and eliminating them may not be what they had in mind when they talked about reforming government," says Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Still, there is considerable debate among the cultural elite (boxes) -- and arts supporters are worried. "It's daunting -- this is the toughest sell I've seen in 20 years of lobbying," says Robert Lynch, president of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies.

As veterans of the cultural wars are quick to note, talk of eliminating the cultural agencies is hardly new. Ronald Reagan promised to abolish the NEA but reversed himself, though he advocated cutting its budget. Since the NEA was established, in 1965, conservative critics have often accused the agency of funding art that's blasphemous or obscene. Now the biggest threat to the NEA is the grim fiscal reality of Gingrich's "Contract With America" and the promise to pass a balanced-budget amendment. Nobody pretends that eliminating the NEA, NEH and CPB will save much money; together they are costing $630 million this year, barely a blip in a $1.5 trillion budget. But many conservatives say the symbolism is enormous: how can Congress make the agonizing cuts necessary in Head Start or public housing if it can't pull the plug on subsidized opera? "This is a test of our mettle and our will," said Rep. Ernest J. Istook, a staunchly conservative member of the House Appropriations Committee who wants to "zero fund" all three agencies.

The good news for the culture lobbies is that the Senate is far more congenial than the House. Rules Committee chairman Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, is as fiscally stingy as they come, but he's a big supporter of public broadcasting; CPB-funded radio stations are the only ones that reach the more remote corners of his state. Judiciary chairman Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, is an NEA backer; he takes personal pride in Salt Lake City's Ballet West, which receives grants from the agency. One of the less noticed results of last November's election was the elevation of a host of GOP moderates (and cultural backers) into key committee chairmanships. The new chair of the subcommittee that will oversee the reauthorization of the NEA and NEH this year is Sen. Jim Jeffords, a leader of the bipartisan Congressional Arts Caucus. "I'm confident we'll be able to get [reauthorization] through the Senate," he says. "I've been battling for 20 years on this issue and I know where the votes are."

But the NEA still is drawing fire for a few controversial grants -- most recently, for $104,000 awarded to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Last spring the Walker sponsored Ron Athey, an HIV-positive performance artist whose work involved cutting himself and carving a ritualistic design into the back of an HIV-negative assistant. Towels blotted with the assistant's blood were hung over the audience. Though no more than $150 in NEA money went to Athey, the uproar (Sen. Jesse Helms displayed a photo of the blood-drenched Athey on the Senate floor) was a prelude to the end of the NEA's $1.3 million program of grants for individual artists. There's still fallout from the incident. When Gingrich pressed his case against the endowment at a recent breakfast with reporters, he said, "Performance artists in a free society have the right to do the most extraordinary and bizarre things. That's called freedom of speech. But . . . there is no place in the Constitution that says the taxpayers must subsidize the weirdest thing you can imagine."

The CPB has its own embarrassment. Barney, the ubiquitous purple dinosaur on the CPB-funded Public Broadcasting Service, has become a $500 million merchandising jackpot for the Lyons Group, the Texas firm that created the character. Yet until recently virtually none of those revenues came back to PBS, even though more than $2 million in government money went to develop the show. Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, the new chairman of the committee that oversees CPB, is incensed over "Barneygate" and blames bad management -- nobody at PBS had negotiated for a share of licensing fees before airing Barney. Pressler wants to turn the agency into a private corporation. Even though PBS now has an agreement to share in the Barney bonanza, CPB president Richard Carlson admits, "It's a terrible PR problem."

In all these battles -- over the CPB and the arts and humanities agencies -- major players from politics, academia and Hollywood are rushing to help both sides. CPB board member Honey Alexander, wife of all-but-declared GOP presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, is calling and faxing congressmen to plead for CPB. Washington superlobbyist and former CPB chair Sheila Tate is poised to chip in. Meanwhile, William Bennett, a former NEH chairman and secretary of education, is assembling a panel of academic conservatives -- such as former NEH chair Lynne Cheney -- to make the case to Congress for abolishing all three agencies. It will be difficult to avoid the collision of the cultural elites on Capitol Hill. "You watch," says Bennett, "there will be more intellectual resources -- per capita -- put into this one than there will be for anything else before the Congress."