Deborah Rutter took over as the Kennedy Center’s president in September. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Nobody is expecting Culture Wars 2.0.

But that doesn’t mean arts leaders aren’t a bit worried. Since last week’s elections gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress, there have been whispers in arts circles about a repeat of the 1994 midterm elections that carried conservatives to power and almost abolished the National Endowment for the Arts.

“I was there for that. I always worry about that,” says Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. “The good news was we saved the support. The bad news was it was a 40 percent cut.”

But Lynch and other arts leaders aren’t anticipating a sequel. The NEA itself is less controversial, they say, because most of its grants go to state and regional partners and arts organizations, with few dollars going directly to artists.

In addition, the conversation for arts funding now focuses more on economic impact, tax receipts and community development.

“It’s not what we first think of what the arts are for. The arts play a role in nurturing the soul and spirit,” Lynch says. “But the arts are an important tool to help other issues.”

The Newt Gingrich assault on arts funding in the 1990s tapped into a simmering controversy over public funding of art. There was the Corcoran’s mishandling of an NEA-funded Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in 1989, followed a year later by the NEA chairman’s decision to veto grants to four performance artists based on their edgy subject matter and not on artistic quality, which had been verified through the agency’s peer review.

(Those grants were reinstated after a protracted court fight.) By 1996, the NEA’s budget was cut from 1992’s peak of $175.9 million to $99.4 million. As is clear from this year’s $146 million appropriation, the arts community still hasn’t fully recovered.

“It’s a year-in, year-out grind,” says Heather Noonan, vice president for advocacy at the League of American Orchestras. “In the (fiscal year 2016) budget process, we’ll continue to make sure that the NEA isn’t disproportionately affected by attempts to cut domestic spending.”

Many arts leaders are cautiously optimistic, thanks to the bipartisan support they’ve nurtured since the early 1990s. One such advocate is Rep. Leonard Lance (N.J.), the Republican co-chairman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, who was elected to Congress in 2008.

“It’s my responsibility as head of the caucus to inform new colleagues of the work that is done and why it is important,” Lance says. “It’s important to point out the tremendous multiplier effect and the economic advantages that come as a result of appropriate (federal) funding.”

But Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums, believes cultural leaders must stay vigilant.

“Arts and culture can get lost in the sausage-making. That’s our big problem, the deals,” Bell says. He recalled a late change to a 2009 stimulus bill that lumped zoos and aquariums into a category with golf courses and thus prevented them from applying for grants that other AAM members were eligible for.

“That’s what really worries me,” he says. “It’s a reminder to do everything we can . . . to remind our allies that there are unintended consequences. We have to be there, and ask them to look out for us, watch for us.”

Federal funding is important to local institutions, too. The 2014 budget included $805 million for the Smithsonian, $133 million for the National Gallery of Art and $34.4 million for the Kennedy Center. These appropriations don’t spark controversy like the NEA’s does, perhaps because government officials have firsthand knowledge of how the funds are used. (Members of Congress are appointed to both the Smithsonian and Kennedy Center boards, and cabinet members serve on the National Gallery of Art’s board.)

Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter is still learning the ropes, but she says the arts center benefits from these relationships.

“We have found them to be good partners. I see them in our audience, and when we have a question, we call them and find them to be responsive,” she says, noting that Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who serves as a Smithsonian regent, attended the last board meeting. Cochran is in line to return as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“This is new language, new stuff, but in some ways it’s more straightforward,” Rutter says of the Kennedy Center’s federal support. “We enjoy being bipartisan, being a safe gathering place, a place where the arts bring people together.”

Lance believes a Republican-led Senate will function better, and that will help arts and cultural groups. “We’re going to have a regular appropriation process, which we have not had in Washington in recent times,” he says.

In addition, arts leaders are focused on more than just federal dollars. Lance and the arts caucus will push for arts education initiatives and the use of art therapy in veterans’ recovery programs. They will also be involved in protecting charitable donations in any comprehensive tax reform. Donations represent about 40 percent of income of performing arts organizations.

“There is a better awareness of what the NEA does,” says Noonan of the League of American Orchestras. “And they have heard from people back home.”

Bell agrees that the power of the electorate can’t be overlooked.

“Congress is keenly aware that its approval rating is far below the president’s, which is pretty low, too. Republicans are looking at the presidency [in 2016],” he says. “I‘m hoping that translates into a reasonable discussion about priorities.”