National Endowments for Arts and Humanities Leaderless in Budget Negotiations

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August 8, 2013; New York Times


It has been eight months since former Broadway producer Rocco Landesman announced he would vacate his role as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The National Endowment for the Humanities also remains without a replacement for its former permanent director, Jim Leach, who left in May. Neither organization is rudderless, in that both have interims in place, but both searches seem to be taking longer than expected, and most agree that the interims do not have the political capital needed to champion the agencies, because they have not been anointed.

Landesman, a powerful figure, was no opinionless cheerleader, but was known for his financial approach to the arts. He lauded the arts as an engine of the economy, but also was critical of what he considered to be wasteful practices.

Dana Gioia, who headed NEA from 2002 to 2008, comments that, without a confirmed chair, the endowments “operate with a disability…The NEA and NEH need chairpersons because they need people to be working with Congress, the White House and the public to build support.”

The situation would have to be laid at the feet of the president, in that he is responsible for nominating these leaders subject to the approval of Congress.

Ronald Reagan tried to eliminate both agencies when he was in the presidency, and the agencies have periodically attacked by Republicans as wasteful. According to this article, “Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney pledged to slash the endowments’ financing, while the Alaska governor and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin labeled them “frivolous,” and called for them to be put on “the chopping block.”

And, maybe not so coincidentally, just last month, while both agencies languish without permanent leaders, the House Appropriations Committee proposed cutting the $154.5 million recommended by Obama for each endowment in half. Discussion on the issue has been delayed until September, but if the cut were enacted, it would be the largest in NEA history. According to this report, that record is currently held by fiscal year 1995–96, when $162 million was slashed to $99 million. Beginning in 1967 with $2.9 million, the annual NEA appropriation peaked in 1993 at $176 million.

Arts advocates are frustrated with the lack of movement. “People have been expressing interest in this position for many months, and I just don’t know why there hasn’t been movement,” Jonathan Katz, chief executive of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, said. “Programmatically, the agency tends to drift until you have a chairman coming in, because nobody wants to commit the agency to something that might not be the new chairman’s priority.”—Ruth McCambridge