The Subject was the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. The setting was a hearing room in the artless reaches of the Rayburn Building.
Rep.Sidney Yates (D-111) was questioning the Arts Endowment's visual arts director, James Melcher, about how his program decides who gets grants. He was told that two-thirds of the 4,000 applications in the painting and sculpture category are eliminated in two or three day by two members of the panel which will make the eventual recommendations.
Yates was fascinated that so many artistic endeavors could be dismissed so quickly. It sounded like the wartime technique of flashing pictures of air-planes in front of soldiers so they could be instantly identified, he remarked.
"A lot of applications come in from hobbyists who wouldn't stand a chance", said Melcher.
"What do you do with a Grandma Moses?" asked Yates. "Throw her out? She was a hobbyist when she started."
The screening team" can certainly recognize a good naive artist from a Klutz," replied Melcher.
"So two-thirds of your applications are by Klutzes". concluded Yates.
The federal goverments cultural money tree has stopped growing. The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities received only token increases in their budgets this year, and there may be attempts to cut the budgets on the floor of the House.
The pressure is on the Endowments to make decisions about priorities. At the recent budget hearings of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies the Endowments, in reports released by a House investigative team wereurged to get tough.
"Each Endowment attempts to be all things to all persons and, as a result, fails to define its leaders role for fear of dictating culture," in the words of the investigators.
Sometimes this pressure translates into demands that only artists and scholars doing work of professional excellence be funded. The key code word used by advocates of this position is "quality". They fever it. They charge that the "politicizing" of the Endowments has endowed the undeserving.
Their opponents, meanwhile, apply thier own pressure on the Endowments. Minorities and independent artists and burgbers throughout the land say that too offer Endowment money has gone only to the big guys, who have "elitist" definitions of "quality".
These groups use "access" and "equity" as the key code words to describe their goals. And "access" means not only access to the money for previously unfunded artists and scholars, but also access to the arts and humanities by vast and widespread audiences.
In hearings the other day, subcommitee chairman Yates sympthetically compared the Arts Endowment leadership to Laocoon, the mythie figure who was as sailed serpents.
But even Yates, for all his sympathy to the Endowments asks tougher questions about their operations than have ever been asked in congressional hearings. After completing more than five days of hearings devoted to the Endowments, Yates said "I wont to make sure that those who comes to the Endowments with such high hopes for money and recognition receive a full and fat hearing".
"I still am not prestigated that this is happening" he added.
At 69, Yates is ssomething like what Groucho Marx might have become if he had entered polities. The Yates voice sounds like Groucho's, and his interrogations of witnesses are reminiscent of the questioning of the contestants on "You Bet Your Life." Wisecraacks abound. One Artss Endowments witness told him she felt"like a straight man."
But Yates can also be absolutely serious, as he was when W. McNeil Lowry, the former Ford Foundation vice president who once was the godfather of private arts giving testified. Lowry presented the case for "quality" better than anyone else attacking the Arts Endowment for "a scatteration of funds, the at tenuation rather than the discrimination of standards. "The Endowment, he said, "has treated almost everything else it does as equally important" as "quality".
Lovery testified at the invitation of Yates, who listened respectfully to his recommendations. But as the hearings went on, it became apparent that Yates and the other committee members who showed up side with the "access" advocates.
And it became apparent that in Washington, it would be naive to expect anything else.
Yates discussed Lowry's testimony in an interview after the hearings."I don't know that the Endowments can do that (accept LOwry's recommendation.) They have to live not only in the world of the arts and humanities but also in the world of Congress and the states as well."
The political pressures on the Endowments are obvious. Except for Yates, most of the committee members who must approve the Endowments' budgets attend the hearings rarely. When they do appear, they often spend their time plugging arts toprojects within their districts.
Rep. John Murtha Jr (D Pa.) ballyhooed the Johnstown, Pa., orchestra and its Arts Endowments financed activities during a recent flood. He said he knew some of the big cities were worried that so much money was going to the boon-dock, but he was grareful for it.(Cracked Rep. Clair Burgener (R-Calif.) "If it takes a flood to get a concert, you're welcome to it".
Rep Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) Complained that too many Humanities Endowments fellowships go to "prestigious Eastern schools. We feel out in the West, we have some pretty good schools too." (Responded Yates: "After all, they call Stanford the Harvard of the West.")
Yates himselfused the hearings to discribe the Chicago Symphony as "the best word" and to speak of "my Chicago museums." Panel books provided by the Arts Endowment for the inspection of the committee always seemed to fall open to the applications of arts institutions from within the committee members' districts.
"A congressman has his roots in his own district, and he likes to water his roots," said Yates.
Not all of the political pressures are as provincial. Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) appeared before the committee to propose that the Arts Endowment name a deputy chairman for access and equity in order to insure fair treatment for minorities and other "underrepresented" groups.
Apart from the politically underrepresented, there are cities who charge that new ideas and unconventional art are esthetically underrepresented at the Endowments. They, too want "access" and "equity."
The House committee report quotes a member of the National Council on the HUmanities as saying the Humanities Endowment is "funding the same old things." This annoyed Endowment chairman Joseph Duffey.
"Our job is not to be innovators in radical new activity." Duffey told the committee. Part of his job he said, was "to sustain the same old things".
Are you barring innovation?" asked Yates. He said Duffey's words "give me pause." The impressionists and abstract expressionists were radial innovators in their days, he remarked.
Duffey got out of the colloquy by ex-planning that new ideas are "more welcome at the Endowment than anywhere" but that they "come from our applicants and not from us."
Yates questioned Duffey extensively on why the Metropolitan Museum of Art was allowed to resubmit an application 12 times. The committee report said the application had been "personally groomed by the Endowment's staff," implying favouritism for established institutions. "Is that what you do with every applicant?" asked Yate. "Do you help them all or do you just ship them back?"
"Their persistance in trying to overcome their own provincialism is what prevailed," replied Duffey, adding "There's a great deal of casual and flip talk merit is the only criterion, butwere not here just to reward achievement. We're also here to encourage it and nurture it".
Smaller institutions might wonder if their own potential for achievement would be as carefully nurtured as the Metropolitan Museum's - if, in other words, they have equitable "access" to the Endowment. At this point however, the "access" argument can be turned around. And the Endowment's written responseto the committee report did so: the Metropolitan exhibit in question "will be viewed by millions of Americans . . . for many years to come," according to the Endowment. Hence "access," and hence the tender loving care accorded the Metropolitan's grant.
Yates seemed more interested in the complains of independent filmmakers that they have been denied access to the Endowments than in those of any other group. He indicated agreement with the gripes and raised the issue several times with officials of both Endowments. ENdowment officials earnestly, tired to prove they had done their bit.
Finally though Yates softened slightly on this issue. The testimony of independent filmmaker Barbara Kopple on behalf of the Endowments enchanted him so much that he read aloud from her statement twice. Asked why she affected him so much, he replied " Well, she won an Academy Award (for "Harlan County, U S A") Thatis the standard by which films are judged."
The various advocates of access were not completely satisfied with the committee's work during the past few weeks. They were worried that specific cases would not be followed up that the inefficiency and mismanagement cited in the committee reports would be neglected.
Yates spiked the effect of the committee report on the Arts Endowment by disavowing its tone and methods. And each Endowment issued detailed responses to the committee reports rebutting most of the charges. However, many of the specific recommendations of the committee reports were endorsed by both Yates and Endowment officials.
The most pervasive charge of the committeerereports - that the Endowments were not being led because they had failed to make hard choices - was dismissed by the Endowments and generally by Yates.
For this the pro-"access" folks who may brandish the committee reports against the Endowments probably should be grateful. If the Endowments ever do try select their priorities more decisively someone will be left out. It might be the minorities or the independent filmmakers or the Johnstown orchestra.
In fact if anyone lost this latest round of squabbling over the Endowment, its the pro-"quality" crowd. Yates challenged witnesses to define "quality" and did not find an answer that pleased him. Given the political pressures on the Hill, the Endowments are not likely to choose "quality" over "access" in the near future despite the financial crunch.
Not to worry. The funding may be at a plateau, but the Arts Endowments new five-year plan confidently predicts that in a few years the major increases will return.
The culture money tree will bloom again. Something for everyone is just around the corner.