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NEA chairman upbeat over agency's future role

Saturday, November 18, 2000

Bill Ivey, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts since 1998, was in town yesterday to speak to the annual conference of the National Assembly of Arts Agencies. Beforehand, he sat down with Post-Gazette cultural arts writer Caroline Abels and PG art critic Mary Thomas to talk about the agency's strategies and the fallout from the 1990s, when the NEA was criticized by some congressmen for funding provocative art.

Q: Why did the NEA win a $7 million budget increase from Congress this year?

Bill Ivey: "We're still in the process of making the case that investment in art and art-making and our cultural heritage is just as important as investment in non-arts education..." (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

A: Well, there seems to be a softening of the rhetoric in Congress after the politics of anger that characterized the discourse when the Republicans took control of Congress in the mid-1990s. Also, the agency has come forward with a coherent plan with its Challenge America initiative that I think makes sense to congressmen on both sides of the aisle. And our supporters in Congress, in the administration, and around the country in state arts agencies and arts organizations have become a lot more sophisticated and organized around their advocacy efforts. Some of that came from the need to protect the agency when it was under attack a few years ago. In the long run, I think we'll look back and say [those] attacks were actually beneficial to the Endowment.

Q: Is the NEA still saddled by the legacy of the "NEA Four" [four artists who sued the agency for not funding their work after it was criticized by Congress]?

A: Less than we had anticipated. There was a real chance in 1998 that the Supreme Court might have ruled [on their case] in a way damaging to the agency. But the court struck a middle ground and basically said Congress could issue instructions to a federal agency like ours, but that we had total latitude in terms of how we interpreted those instructions.

Q: What might a Bush or Gore presidency hold in store for the NEA?

A: I know more about the vice president because I've worked closely with his staff over the years. I'm confident that we would have an outstanding cultural administration if we had a Gore-Lieberman White House. I know less about Gov. Bush. I know that the state of Texas ranks low in per capita funding for the arts, but I also know that during his tenure the dollar amounts devoted to arts funding have increased significantly. I was very pleased that last summer the Republican Party platform extracted the call for the elimination of the NEA. And I know that Laura Bush has been a supporter of the arts.

Q: Why should the NEA exist when so many private foundations and corporations fund the arts?

A: If you take all government funding of the arts, including from the NEA and state and community arts agencies, the total only comes to about 10 percent of the total investment in the not-for-profit arts. So we know our role is to be a partner and at other times a leader in establishing a centrality and permanency for the arts. As there's a deeper understanding that the NEA is the voice saying, yes, art is the currency of our diverse democracy, yes, cultural heritage does matter for young people, yes, art and art-making is key to building our communities -- as we understand those things better, I think we'll be able to grow our central investment in the arts.

Q: Is the NEA, then, setting the arts agenda for private funding?

A: Well, one of the big challenges is to keep culture a priority on the agendas of foundations, particularly as new philanthropy comes about and new wealth becomes part of the philanthropic system. In the arts, we're still in the process of making the case that investment in art and art-making and our cultural heritage is just as important as investment in non-arts education, in a health-care charity, in a social service agency. We have to keep making that case.

Q: How do you see your role outside the U.S.?

A: In many contexts around the world, I'm the closest thing we have to a minister of culture, and I find myself functioning as that sometimes. ... We're not a country that will have a minister of culture as a cabinet member, but it's possible to take the NEA, the State Department and other federal agencies and create a good cultural face for the U.S., one that's more authentic than what the Sylvester Stallone movies are able to provide.

Q: Do you ever get tired of having to justify the arts?

A: Oh, sure, we have to do it every day. It's a huge issue with newspapers, too. I joked in Washington once that I could walk out into the street and murder someone and it would still be reported in the Style section -- "Endowment Chief Offends Again -- This Time With Gun ..."

But I hope we're coming to a new sense of how the arts work in America. The sense of entitlement that was present among major arts institutions for so many years that has certainly broken down. Now there's a sense of cultural entitlement not among the few but among the many. ... Our challenge is to find the great metaphors for art in society so that we don't have to argue for the importance of art, we can just talk about strategies for advancing it.

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