January 29, 2004

Bush Is Said to Seek More Money for the National Endowment for the Arts


New York Times

WASHINGTON, Jan. 28  President Bush will seek a big increase in the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, the largest single source of support for the arts in the United States, administration officials said on Wednesday.

The proposal is part of a turnaround for the agency, which was once fighting for its life, attacked by some Republicans as a threat to the nation's moral standards.

Laura Bush plans to announce the request on Thursday, in remarks intended to show the administration's commitment to the arts, aides said.

Administration officials, including White House budget experts, said that Mr. Bush would propose an increase of $15 million to $20 million for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. That would be the largest rise in two decades and far more than the most recent increases, about $500,000 for 2003 and $5 million for this year.

The agency has a budget of $121 million this year, 31 percent lower than its peak of $176 million in 1992. After Republicans gained control of Congress in 1995, they cut the agency's budget to slightly less than $100 million, and the budget was essentially flat for five years.

In an e-mail message inviting arts advocates to a news briefing with Mrs. Bush, Dana Gioia, the poet who is chairman of the endowment, says, "You will be present for an important day in N.E.A. history."

Mr. Gioia (pronounced JOY-uh) has tried to move beyond the culture wars that swirled around the agency for years. He has nurtured support among influential members of Congress, including conservative Republicans like Representatives Charles H. Taylor and Sue Myrick of North Carolina. He has held workshops around the country to explain how local arts organizations can apply for assistance.

Public support for the arts was hotly debated in the 1990's. Conservatives complained that the agency was financing obscene or sacrilegious works by artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. Former Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, repeatedly tried to eliminate the agency.

Some new money sought by Mr. Bush would expand initiatives with broad bipartisan support, like performances of Shakespeare's plays and "Jazz Masters" concert tours.

Mrs. Bush also plans to introduce a new initiative, "American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius." This would combine art presentations  from painting and literature to music and dance  with education programs. The program would give large numbers of students around the country a chance to see exhibitions and performances.

New York receives a large share of the endowment's grants. But under federal law, the agency also gives priority to projects that cater to "underserved populations," including members of minority groups in urban neighborhoods with high poverty rates.

The president's proposal faces an uncertain future at a time of large budget deficits.

Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, an advocacy group, said, "We'll be fighting tooth and nail for the increase."

Some conservatives, like Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado, vowed to oppose the increase. Even without support from the government, he said, "art would thrive in America."

Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, said she was delighted to learn of Mr. Bush's proposal.

"There's nothing in the world that helps economic development more than arts programs," Ms. Slaughter said. "It was foolish for Congress to choke them and starve them. We should cherish the people who can tell us who we are, where we came from and where we hope to go."

Mr. Tancredo expressed dismay. "We are looking at record deficit and potential cuts in all kinds of programs," he said. "How can I tell constituents that I'll take money away from them to pay for somebody else's idea of good art? I have no more right to do that than to finance somebody else's ideas about religion."

The agency has long had support from some Republicans, like Representatives Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Jim Leach of Iowa.

"Government involvement is designed to take the arts from the grand citadel of the privileged and bring them to the public at large," Mr. Leach said. "This democratization of the arts ennobles the American experience."

Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting for this article.