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Arts Community Discusses Role of NEA Funding

By Eva Moy
News Editor

Should the federal government fund artists based on the content of their works? Or their skill? Or the artists' race? Should it support established or experimental arts? Or should it fund art at all?

About 500 artists, art educators and administrators, public officials, and private citizens from across the nation converged at Kresge Auditorium last weekend to discuss these issues at "The Public Patron: drafting a mandate for a federal arts agency," organized by the MIT Office of the Arts.

The conference debated the role of the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA has made controversial decisions within the past few years, overshadowing its previous quarter century of work in promoting the arts.

"We thought that this conference would benefit the reauthorization hearings" expected this summer and the upcoming nomination of a new chairman, said Director of the MIT Council for the Arts Mark A. Palmgren. However, a full Congressional debate will probably occur in 1995.

"MIT will always be preeminent in science and technology ... [but] the arts are no less excellent, no less rigorous," Palmgren said. He hopes that this conference will help identify MIT as an institution concerned about the discussion of arts issues nationwide.

Coincidentally, this conference took place one year after Anne-Imelda Radice, then-acting NEA chairman, turned down a grant to the List Visual Arts Center for its exhibition, Corporal Politics.

Peer review essential to NEA

The conference opened Friday night with two keynote speakers. Many of their ideas were debated by panel members and the audience Saturday.

"The Arts Endowment does not belong to any one person or political party. It reflects the national spirit and broad diversity in our country," said keynote speaker Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Ma). Senator Kennedy is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, and he will oversee the reauthorization hearings this summer.

He added that the NEA will only survive if people in art, not political circles, determine whom to fund.

Robert Hughes, Time magazine art critic, discussed the importance of the government as a patron of the arts. "The NEA is a vital catalyst to non-government money for the arts," he said. "For as a rule, corporate money likes prestige ventures, proven successes; whereas it's essential to the NEA's mandate to care for what is unproven, what cannot yet -- or cannot ever -- succeed in the marketplace."

Hughes calls for arts "elitism"

Hughes had said, "I think the job of democracy, in the field of art, is to make the world safe for elitism. Not an elitism based on race or money or social position, but on skill and imagination."

But he added, "I am also a populist in that I believe these standards can and do make sense to anyone who is prepared to pay enough attention."

Adolfo Nodal, General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural affairs, disagreed. "Democracy cannot be an instrument of the elite," he said. "We must redouble our efforts in reaching a broader cross-section of America ... . We must get art, the highest art, off its pedestal and into the sidewalk."

Director of the List Center Katy Kline compared government patronage to research support. "You often don't know what conclusion you're going to come up with and you accept the possibilities of false starts or even dead ends."

Education in the Arts

A second panel discussed the different venues for education of the children and the general population about the role of art in everyday life.

"Every child deserves the right to develop the cognitive and the effective skills to reach the highest personal potential," said Frank Hodsoll, former chairman of the NEA. "There's a critical role for the arts to play in developing the ability of students to think critically about the world."

Bonnie Jo Hunt is the artistic director and president of the Artists of Indian America. Visiting Native American reservations, she revived the dying traditions of native art.

"They did not want only to observe, they wanted to learn how to perform," Hunt said. "Self esteem seems almost a trite expression, but it depicts what your efforts are all about."

Assistant Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Michael Morgan worked in a similar fashion to spread music to schools around the Chicago area. He also felt it was important, in a symphony concert, to invite different groups, such as rappers, in a "cross cultural collaboration."

"And then I think you will see in most cases there are more similarities than there are differences between the different kinds of music, even though on the face of it they do two entirely different things," Morgan said. "You play them side by side, you start to see the connections, and that's really, that is, that has to happen in order for people to see that we're not all in these various slots, we're not all special interests."