When the education committee of the National Council on the Humanities had assembled for its first meeting Thursday morning, council member Joe Rushing of Texas looked up and announced pleasantly, "I'm not that familiar with procedures in these new open meetings, but do you think our lunch menus fall under it?"
With that, the National Council -- the presidentially appointed commission which advises the National Endowment for the Humanities -- began its two-day round of quarterly meetings. They were touted as the most open in the Council's history, following recent criticism of closed proceedings from the public and Congress.
For the first time, the Council's policy discussions were open to the public.During those discussions, the Council decided to allow museums that receive grants for exhibits to charge admission, something not allowed previously. Council member Jacob Neusner spoke against the practice. "People have already paid admission when they paid their taxes," he said.
But council member Nancy Davies noted, "We've had small museums not be able to take exhibits because they felt they couldn't afford it."
Under the new policy, a museum that wishes to charge admission for an exhibit will have to request permission from the Endowment to do so and explain its reasons.
Another major topic of discussion was the amount the NEH spends on media. Media programs account for the largest amount of NEH funding in any single category and have funded a variety of television programs, including a special series called "The American Short Story" and a program on William Faulkner.
Although the media program has met with some criticism, the Council concluded that the expenditures were well justified. "Television is not always a great medium," said Council member and Miami attorney Louis Hector. "But it may be the single best means for bringing humanities values to large numbers of people." Steven Rabin, head of the NEH media program said, "The media program began and is still rooted in NEH's objective to aid in the public understanding and appreciation of the humanities."
Martin Sullivan of the NEH's public programs division told the group that it costs the Endowment between $300,000 and $800,000 for a one-hour show and that in the 13-year history of the media program 528 hours of television and radio programming have been produced from 387 grants. "Our 528 hours have been extremely successful," he said. "It's certainly a longterm experiment for the Endowment. It's hard to gauge the impact."
None of the council members seemed to mind the new openness, although one NEH staffer noted that discussions were more reserved and less pointed than usual. The Council had no objections when NEH chairman Joseph Duffey suggested that names of panelists -- the experts in a given field who meet in closed sessions to make grant recommendations -- be released, upon request, before panels sat. Previously, the NEH would only release panelists' names after they had met. The portion of the meetings in which grant applicants are discussed is still closed to the public.