The BCFE Quarterly Report is published by the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression, 354 Congress Street, Boston, MA 02210. (617) 542-7416 or (617) 497-7193. FAX (617) 868-5118.
Editorial Board: Sandy Charron, Bob Chatelle, James D'Entremont, Tamar Meiksin, Joseph Marlino, Bill Reeves.
As we go to press, the National Endowment for the Arts is once again being dragged through the gutter by the theocratic right and its boosters in Congress. An $8.5 million cut proposed by the Senate Appropriations Committee has a good chance of passing the full Senate. This would amount to a 5% reduction in the NEA's total budget, bringing last year's $170.2 million figure down to $161.7 million, and pulling the NEA back to its lowest level of funding since FY 1986. What is especially insidious about this projected cut is that it would punitively target programs in theater, the visual arts, and the presenting and commissioning of new work.
Ominously, Congressional attacks on the NEA have been coming this time from both sides of the aisle. The Senatorial onslaught was led by West Virginia's Robert Byrd, the Democratic Chair of the Appropriations Committee, working closely with Oklahoma's Don Nickles, a Republican. When the House of Representatives hit the NEA with a 2% budget reduction following four hours of stormy debate on June 23, Senator Byrd decided to strike before NEA supporters could address the damage done by the House. On June 28, he unexpectedly moved the NEA to the top of his agenda.
This year's propaganda weapon of choice for Congressional NEA-bashers was a March 5 Minneapolis appearance by Ron Athey. The event, part of a series sponsored by the Walker Art Center, was indirectly supported by $150 in NEA money (an investment of about one ten-thousandth of a cent per taxpayer) derived from a $100,000 grant made during the Bush Administration. Athey, an HIV-positive artist who uses ritual piercing and scarification in addressing issues of AIDS, body image, and homophobia, is falsely alleged to have threatened the audience with exposure to the AIDS virus.
The disinformation campaign against Athey and the Endowment began when right-wing activists seized upon an inaccurate secondhand account of his performance by a Minneapolis Star reporter. Martin Mawyer of Christian Action Network sent out hundreds of thousands of personalized anti-NEA packets complete with computer generated certificates to be signed and passed on to members of Congress. These "Taxpayer Declarations of War" read in part as follows: "As a voter and taxpayer in your district, I want you to know that I am sickened and outraged that my tax funds were spent on this NEA 'Blood Production.' I have repeated expressed my request to you and others in Congress to DEFUND and ABOLISH this rogue agency that wastes millions and offends millions."
Mawyer's "War" packet was widely circulated by arts advocates who felt it was mainly good for a laugh. In Congress, however, it was taken seriously and skillfully exploited by the House anti-arts brigade led by Reps. Phil Crane (R-IL), Cliff Stearns (R-FL), and Robert Dornan (R-CA), and by North Carolina's Jesse Helms and his cronies in the Senate. On June 17, Senators Byrd and Nickles wrote to NEA Chairman Jane Alexander calling Athey's performance "grossly improper" and asking for assurances that nothing similar would ever be funded again. When Alexander refused to condemn the performance or acquiesce to restrictions, Byrd retaliated.
The punitive character of the proposed reduction has been explicitly admitted by Byrd himself, who told the Senate, "All of it is directed at those grant programs which have been at the center of recent controversies." If actually put into effect, Byrd's plan will lop off 40.5% of the present allocation for Presenting and Commissioning, 41.7% of the visual arts budget, and 42% of the allotment for theater--effectively gutting those programs. The cuts will be especially hard on individual artists and artist-run organizations. Additional amounts are also slated to be pared away from the allotments of matching and challenge grants.
If the Byrd cut should pass the full Senate, arts supporters can only hope the damage will be minimized when the House and Senate Conference Committee meets to arrive at a final, reconciled budget in September or October. At a time of deficit reduction, when the right is engaged in an all-out assault on the Clinton Administration, many of the NEA's former friends may try to have it both ways by supporting cuts and claiming either family values or frugality, depending on the audience. But as David Mendoza of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression points out, "This is not deficit reduction, this is censorship."
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