Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) was incorrectly identified in yesterday's Style section. He is ranking Democrat on the education, arts and humanities subcommittee of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
The White House yesterday confirmed reports that the Reagan administration will ask Congress to cut the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts by 11.7 percent in the next budget year. The figure is part of the larger administration budget proposal that will be presented to Congress early next month.
The largest cuts would be in programs that support opera, music and dance, news that was greeted with alarm by performing artists in other parts of the country, after a report appeared in The New York Times. The reaction in the halls of Washington's arts bureaucracies was milder, however, as might be expected in a city that has already seen some spectacular arm wrestling over arts funding between a powerful president and the equally muscular congressional arts caucus.
"It's kind of naive in 1986 to expect a budget to do much other than stay even," said one endowment official who asked not to be named.
"This time of year I always hear better when I turn my attention to Capitol Hill instead of the executive offices," said Don Moore, executive director of Dance U.S.A., the Washington representative of many of the nation's professional dance troupes.
The administration's request for the NEA -- $144.5 million for fiscal year 1986 -- is actually a $500,000 increase over what the White House originally proposed for this year's endowment budget, but it is down from the $163.7 million that Congress actually appropriated last year.
The new budget would cut the programs for opera and musical theater by 18.3 percent, the music program by 15 percent and dance programs by 13.5 percent. That the figures are preliminary and likely to be altered by Congress does not make them less appalling to some.
"This is almost obscene," said actor Theodore Bikel, a former member of the NEA's National Council on the Arts, which advises the endowment. "This is a small agency that doesn't provide complete funding to anyone; it just gives seed money. If this large of a margin is cut, the large artists will not be hurt by this, but what will not survive is the bold and the experimental, the luxury of allowing artists to fail nobly."
Others' comments were less apocalyptic. "The fact that Ronald Reagan came in with $144 million shows that the administration has accepted this agency and the importance of the arts," said a staffer with the House Appropriations subcommittee that will ultimately set the endowment's funding.
Since President Reagan took office in 1981, the fight over federal arts funding has played like a thriller, but never as dramatically as in 1981, when Reagan's proposal to cut the Carter NEA budget by almost 50 percent had arts advocates in an uproar.
Congress wound up almost doubling Reagan's proposal that year, a move that reduced the budget by about 10 percent. In subsequent years, the administration's budget proposal for the NEA increased but still called for reductions of anywhere from $20 million to $40 million. And each year Congress has managed to not only eliminate the cuts but actually increase the NEA's budget above the previous year.
Martin I. Kagan, executive director of Opera America, a trade association for opera companies, called the proposal "an improvement over the past," but added that he found the cuts to music and dance "disturbing."
According to Kagan, opera's share of the NEA's largess has been falling steadily over the past four years, from nearly 4 percent in 1982 to the Reagan administration's proposal for 3.3 percent in 1986. "Our only hope is that Congress, in its wisdom, will turn this around."
Kagan, Bikel and others said that federal funding, while it makes up only 5 and 2.3 percent of the budgets of opera and dance, respectively, is important beyond its size for the courage it gives the trustees and private-sector fundraisers. The cuts, or threats of large budget reductions, have in the past inhibited the production of new work.
In the 1983-84 season, Kagan said, the United States produced only one world opera premiere, "The Abduction of Figaro," which was performed by the Minnesota Opera. "The endowment has a great leadership role in local communities," Kagan said.
Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) said yesterday that the budget figures would create "a financial crisis in government for many if not most of our nation's cultural institutions. We have seen over the past few years that the private sector is unable to fill the gaps created by cuts in federal support for the arts." Pell, the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations subcommittee that hammers out the NEA budget each year, said he will fight the proposed cuts.
Francis S.M. Hodsoll, chairman of the endowment, declined to comment on the budget proposal until it has been presented to Congress.
The National Endowment for the Arts is a federal agency and the largest single source of support for the arts in the United States, awarding 5,000 or more grants annually to artists and arts groups around the country. In 1984 it awarded over $12 million in 336 grants to arts projects in the District, Virginia and Maryland.
This year marks the endowment's 20th anniversary. Today it is expected to announce that First Lady Nancy Reagan has been named honorary chairman of an anniversary committee chaired by Charlton Heston and dedicated to increasing private support for the arts.
Bikel and others said they hoped Congress, in particular powerful Appropriations subcommittee chairman Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), would come to the aid of the NEA as it has in recent years. "I am an optimist," said San Francisco Opera director emeritus Kurt H. Adler, a member of the National Council on the Arts. "You don't belong in opera if you are not an optimist."