In his first appearance before a Congressional panel, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts said one of his chief responsibilities was to restore the prestige of the agency. Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), the new chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee, quickly asked what he had in mind.
And Dana Gioia, the poet who took over the NEA five weeks ago, was ready, unveiling a new outreach program that will bring theatrical productions of Shakespeare to all 50 states. The program, called Shakespeare in American Communities, will send six regional theater companies to 100 small and mid-size communities and will be financed with federal dollars.
"We hope to demonstrate in this way the possibility of what NEA brings to America by introducing a new generation of audiences to the greatest playwright in the language," says Gioia. "This is a way of reviving a great tradition in a contemporary way."
Taylor nodded vigorously at the prospect of schoolchildren viewing professional productions. "It seems to me that education would be a place to focus," because arts exposure has to precede appreciation, he said.
Though they didn't agree on everything, the first public give-and-take between Gioia and the budget overseers went fairly smoothly. The White House has requested $117.5 million for the NEA, a slim increase over the current year. The proposal of $152 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities was also reviewed. It contains a $25 million item for the "teaching, study, and understanding of American history."
Though both Taylor and Gioia cited arts education as a priority in the agency's future, Gioia disagreed with the chairman's suggestion that education money should all fold into the Department of Education's budget. He argued that the NEA had an overview that enabled it to identify the best of the arts education programs. "Simply to pass the money from one agency to another without that guidance is not very good," said Gioia.
Education was also the focus of the NEH review, specifically the failure of social studies programs to teach American history effectively. Some students, said NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, don't know when the Civil War was fought and identified theories of Karl Marx as being part of the Bill of Rights.
"We cannot defend what we do not understand. But even as our country prepares for a possible war, numerous polls, studies and reports indicate that many students at both the secondary and university levels lack even a basic understanding of their country's past," Cole said. "From my perspective this is a national emergency."
Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.), the ranking minority member, was also concerned about the NEH's duplication of efforts with the Department of Education. "This is not limited to 6 to 12 [grades], or the universities but is open to scholars, filmmakers, libraries," Cole said. "I think it is a complementary program."