Politically Correct' Grantsmanship? To the Editor:
Jan Breslauer ("The NEA's Real Offense: Agency Pigeonholes Artists by Ethnicity," March 16) describes the magician's technique of misdirection and then proceeds to apply that tactic to her writing, resulting in a crazy quilt of misinformation.
Her suggestion that artists of color have been presented more for their race or ethnicity than for their artistic excellence is demeaning and untrue. The isolated examples of those who contort themselves to qualify for a grant are the exception, and certainly not part of any rule here at the National Endowment for the Arts. The "ethical identity" that Roberto Bedoya (of the National Association of Artists' Organizations) spoke of is what most artists and arts institutions bring to the grant application process as well as their art.
Additionally, outreach to audiences that have been traditionally under-served is an appropriate endeavor. The NEA's research has found, for example, that between 1982 and 1992 there was a 45 percent increase in the number of blacks who attended a live performance or art exhibition, and a 64 percent increase in Asian, Latino and Native populations. Nor have white audiences suffered as a result of this expanded audience, as suggested by Breslauer, but, instead, have increased 15 percent in the same period.
Lastly, a few points about the policies at the NEA. Nothing in our guidelines discourages collaborations; in fact, they are encouraged through consortia applications. We support those who work within a specific ethnic expression and those who do not. Our bottom line is artistic excellence. The "organizing principle of the arts," as reflected in our policies, is aesthetics and ethics. OLIVE MOSIER Director, Office of Policy, Research and Technology National Endowment for the Arts To the Editor:
In her article charging private funders with "politically correct" grantmaking, Jan Breslauer does a great disservice to the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and other foundations by relying on simplistic arguments and a very selective use of facts.
The fund's mission is to enhance the cultural life of communities and make the arts a more active part of people's everyday lives. The fund believes the arts belong to and should be accessible to everyone, and that the future vitality of all cultural organizations depends on the active engagement and increased support of people in their communities. Our work responds directly to the needs of arts organizations throughout the country that are being hurt by static or dwindling audiences.
The fund's $26 million theater initiative, launched in 1991, is helping nonprofit theaters expand and diversify their audiences.
Over three years the fund awarded grants to 42 theaters. Those theaters -- not the fund -- chose the audiences they wanted to cultivate. Targets ranged from young people to rural residents, to African American communities, to Latino or Asian audiences, to a cross section of groups. Breslauer implies that one theater, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, was forced to choose Latinos over African Americans and Asian Americans. Not true. As Breslauer reported last June in the Los Angeles Times, the fund suggested to the Taper that three new constituencies were too many to serve well. From experience we've learned that focus increases chances of success.
Also, while Breslauer is quick to suggest that the program is causing theaters to lose audiences, we have ample examples to the contrary. For example, Center Stage in Baltimore has used its fund grant to more than double the number of 14- to 30-year-olds at its shows, to 23 percent from 9 percent. The national average for that age group is 12 percent.
Finally, because our work is not limited to supporting theaters, two other points in Breslauer's article merit a response. One is the suggestion that aesthetics are sacrificed when cultural organizations focus on audience. The fund has always maintained that the starting point for building audiences is artistic quality. This belief is reflected in the funding choices we make.
As to Breslauer's other charge that there is a link between our funding decisions and those of the National Endowment for the Arts, again she's wrong. None of our theater grants required matches from public or private sources. And we didn't make any grants in response to a theater's need to raise funds to match an NEA award. Our decisions were based strictly on published application guidelines that allowed theaters to propose thoughtful and strategic ways to diversify and expand audiences.
We appreciate that not everyone agrees with the goals of the fund's theater program, or with other work we do. That is their right. However, everyone is better served if critics of our work, especially reporters, base their commentary on accurate information. M. CHRISTINE DEVITA President, Lila Wallace- Reader's Digest Fund To the Editor:
In response to Jan Breslauer's March 16 article, there are several points that require an opposing voice and public audience.
Breslauer stated that "the endowment has quietly pursued policies rooted in identity politics." That is incorrect. Art is enriched, not compromised, by a concerted effort to bring artists of color into the mainstream of theater, which had traditionally excluded them.
Such policies do not result in "pigeonholing artists and pressuring them to produce work that satisfies a politically correct agenda," as Breslauer maintains. Rather, such policies provide in a small measure the means through which these artists may flourish and grow. By encouraging this dialogue, the NEA has created artistic possibilities in an environment that had previously not been hospitable.
Let me also speak from personal experience. The Shakespeare Theatre has received vital and ongoing support from the NEA and also was the proud recipient of a $1 million grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Resident Theater Initiative to support the Shakespeare Theatre Free for All at Carter Barron Amphitheatre from 1992 through 1995, a program that has also received support from the NEA. Yes, the Lila Wallace funds were earmarked for audience development: in our case, bringing new audiences to see Shakespeare. Yes, a special effort was made to reach out to African American audiences: The theater's home and, especially the amphitheater, is in a metropolitan area that is largely populated by African Americans. The theater has an obligation to give something back to the entire Washington community that has supported it for more than 26 years. And in the past six years, thanks to these institutions along with leadership support from The Washington Post, the Philip L. Graham Fund and numerous other community-minded individuals and organizations, free Shakespeare has been presented to an audience exceeding 250,000.
The Shakespeare Theatre has only benefited from the inclusion of new voices, be they artists or audiences. Our interactions have provided us with new ways of hearing the language, interpreting the plays and mounting the productions. I applaud the efforts of the NEA, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and their colleagues in the grantmaking community for providing the resources to create a lasting cultural legacy for all Americans. MICHAEL KAHN Artistic Director The Shakespeare Theatre How to Revive Vintage Musicals To the Editor:
Certainly the revival of ignored musicals from the golden age of the American theater is welcome. This heritage is not only of importance to our national identity but also a recognized and appreciated product throughout the world, as documented by Paula Span in her excellent article ("Encores! The Theater's Live Archives," March 16). But in the rush for staging old musicals, we should remember that such endeavors should not be at the expense of new musicals.
One of the major drawbacks to many of the tuneful and lyrical musicals of the past has been the outdated, and many times inadequate, book. Wonderful songs are burdened by their inclusion in such musical works.
What is the solution? Songs from these musicals should continue to be presented in concert. But these concerts should not be forerunners to revivals of major musicals that will block the use of these theaters for new works. Worthwhile musicals are still being written, but their performance chances are reduced markedly, first by the lack of producers and theaters willing to take a chance, and second by other musicals that run forever, monopolizing not only space in New York but also in regional theaters. NELSON MARANS Silver Spring Judy Garland, Take Two To the Editor:
I enjoyed reading Tom Shales's enthusiastic review of the A&E "Biography" of Judy Garland (Sunday Arts, March 23) and also enjoyed seeing the show. My one concern is the way Ms. Garland's emotional problems always seem to be given equal time with her enormous talents. I'd like to offer one small counterbalance:
The A&E special contained excerpts from a "Jack Paar Program" of December 1962. I was a writer on the show at that time. The program called for Judy to chat with Jack and also sing three songs. Her ups and downs were common knowledge, and the entire staff was warned to be very careful in dealing with her. The taping of the show went very well. The audience filed out. Then the voice of the director, Hal Gurnee, was heard on the studio's sound system. He asked Jack, Judy and the entire staff, crew and musicians to stay on the set. Hal then explained that the sound recorded on the three songs had a glitch, and all the P's in the lyrics were "popping." There was a collective holding of breath. Then Judy Garland simply said, "Okay" -- and belted out the three songs once again -- to an empty studio but with all the energy of an opening night at the Palace. No temper. No tantrums. Just talent -- and that's what should be remembered about Judy Garland. BOB ORBEN Falls Church Letters should be sent to: Sunday Arts Editor, Style Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include a daytime and nighttime phone number and an address. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.