After nearly two years of debate over how to spend a $120 million gift from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly, Americans for the Arts has decided to spend a small slice of it to start a citizens' movement for the arts.

The organization's officials are expected to announce today in Washington that they are creating the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, a membership group that will adopt the fundraising and lobbying tactics of the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters to build support for arts and arts education.

The nonprofit sector of the arts -- from performing arts centers to dance companies -- are certainly not invisible or unpopular.

Financial support from the public and private sectors has dwindled, however.

"We are very aware of how at risk arts organizations are," says Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a major research and lobbying group for the arts. "There is a policy disconnect between talking about the economic value of the arts in cities and towns and the public and private investment in the arts."

The fund is designed to expand support for the arts at the grass-roots level. Starting Nov. 15, the organization will send out a direct-mail appeal asking people to buttonhole their elected officials demanding more government support.

Lynch knows the value of lobbying. He took a "Lord of the Rings" hobbit, Sean Astin, to Capitol Hill, escorted crooner Tony Bennett to a mayors' meeting and had Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary in tow during a conference last week with bankers.

But that hasn't been enough. "We have done a good job collectively of raising the consciousness of citizens about the value of the arts," says Lynch. "But we have not done a good job of convincing policymakers to invest in the arts. Their positions haven't caught up with the people who say arts are important."

Though individual donors -- the bedrock of arts organizations -- have embraced the arts as an economic catalyst, especially in the revival of downtowns, contributions have not grown over the last four years.

Federal money, funneled through the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, has inched up recently but has not returned to the more-generous levels of a decade ago. Many states slashed their appropriations. Corporate and foundation dollars shrunk with the economy and have not recovered.

"Not as many groups have closed their doors as have cut back, or delayed a season. [But] that hurts the artistic production," Lynch says.

The advocacy group hopes to attract 100,000 donors over the next five years. The effort is expected to cost $1 million from the Lilly gift. Ruth Lilly is an heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune.