Christopher Reeve Keynote Address ACA Advocacy Day (March 14, 1995)
At the American Council for the Arts' Advocacy Day Congressional Breakfast, Christopher Reeve spoke to more than 300 people in attendence including arts leaders, advocates, celebrated performers, and members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats in favor of federal funding for the arts.
Thank you very much. It is wonderful to see your energy, your commitment, and know that you represent the feelings of millions of people of across the country.
Let me tell you a brief story that I think will be helpful as you meet Congressional leaders today.
The Creative Coalition, which I serve along with Blair Brown as Co-President, is a non-partisan, educational organization of people in the arts. We have supported the NEA continuously throughout our seven year history. We have always had a dialogue with both sides of the aisle, on behalf of an agency that has had bipartisan support for 30 years. We think the solutions to the agency's problems are the responsibility of both parties. When the new Congress arrived in January we decided to meet with the Republicians who would now set the agenda to find out what was in store for the NEA. We tested the waters before going in, and were shocked by what we heard:
"The NEA is dead; it's going to be zeroed out; there's no way you can organize a grassroots effort to save it; you don't have the support out there; people are tired of freebies for the lunatic fringe and we're going to put a stop to it."
Frankly, we were taken aback by such agressiveness. After all, the debate in 1990 was about reauthorization language; there was no real momentum towards eliminating the NEA. But the Creative Coalition went to the Hill to try to have a constructive dialogue with members who were know to be troubled by the NEA.
We heard it all: Some said there's no money. Some said the government has no business funding the arts. Some said the NEA has a terrible record. Some said that if the NEA gives a grant to even one more Mapplethorpe it's too many.
We heard about privatization, better tax breaks, supertaxes, income tex check-offs, a tax on entertainment. Some suggested that I and my rich friends get together and fund the arts; I thought this was curious coming from the same people who have branded the NEA as "elitist."
Throughout this period I was thinking that if these people only knew what the NEA actually does, what it has accomplished, what its goals are as we approach the millennium, we wouldn't have a problem. I believed that Republican business leaders would weigh in with their representatives and tell them that the private sector cannot and in fact should not maintain the arts in this country by itself.
I testified before a Senate committee. I said
"I actually think it is sad and somewhat unbelievable that the NEA is still a political football."
"It is not fair, accurate, or responsible for any of our elected officials to reduce this great national asset of ours through a formula of "Mapplethorpe + Deficit = Zero for the NEA."
"The arts should not have the grovel every couple of years and beg the federal government to renew its promises."
In the spirit of seeking a non-partisan solution in the event that the NEA actually was not re-authorized (in other words, legislated out of existence), I echoed a proposal I had heard on the Hill: that Congress create a true endowment that would be self-sustaining after a certain number of years. This would not be privization (which I think is synonymous with elitism) but would keep the agency as it exists now except that after, say, seven years it would have put away enough federal and private money that it would no longer have to be supported by the taxpayer. I said it was a tentative proposal, not as effective or better than what exists now. Subsequently I have come to realize that that proposal wouldn't work because it would require excessive cuts in an already minuscule budget to get it up and running.
Since that time, only a few short weeks ago, special crucially important things have happened. First and foremost: we have heard from the American people.
The fact is, 60 percent of all Americans believe that "the federal government should provide financial assistance to arts organizations." 56 percent would be willing to pay up to $15 more a year in taxes if that would help. That means today, now, even with the deficit. The argument that (in Mr. Gingrich's words) "It's arts patronage for an elite group, and it is funding for avant-garde people who are explicitly not accepted by most of the taxpayers" is simply false. The Republican business leaders, just as we hoped, have been calling and writing from all over the country to say that the arts are crucial to their communities and that it is absolutely essential to have the leadership of the NEA. The spokespeople for three philanthropic foundations, the Mellon, the Reader's Digest, and the MacArthur Foundations, just recently confirmed that if the NEA were to be zeroed out it would be "highly unlikely" and "dangerous wishful thinking" to expect the private sector to pick up the slack even if we agreed on that approach. They are all busy with environmental and social programs as well as the arts; with all the cuts in funding in every area the foundations are already hard pressed.
There has been, in fact, a huge groundswell of support for the NEA. On the Grammys last week Michael Greene made an eloquent plea and received some 37,000 telephone calls and 15,000 telegrams of support. Just as encouraging have been the follow-up calls we have received after some of TCC's meetings with members of Congress: they've checked it out and now realize what a huge difference the NEA makes in their district. When they see the $3.4 billion dollars a year that goes into the Treasury in the form of income taxes on the 1.3 million jobs it creates in the arts community, not to mention the $37 billion in economic activity it stimulates across the country, they have to give up the argument that we can't afford it. One one-hundredth of the annual budget? Come on. In fact, some people say it is fiscally responsible to save the NEA, not to dismantle it.
Having listened to all points of view, I come away with a renewed conviction that there is a crucial role for the government to play in developing the arts and culture in this country. I understand people who are troubled by some of the controversies. I agree absolutely that we have to take immediate, comprehensive measures to reduce the deficit. I'm as worried as anyone else about what kind of country we're going to leave our children. But as I think about all this I am continually struck by certain facts. I think they give us reason to hope.
FACT--This is not about money.
FACT--The NEA is one of the most admirable and successful institutions in our history.
FACT--Under the distinguished leadership of Jane Alexander, the agency is doing its job properly. Merit is the guiding principle more than ever before. Reforms have been instituted that make sure the money goes to worthy projects; for example the Chairman now has the power to review seasonal grants to theatres and retrospectives at museums and to shift the money around if necessary once the list of individual recipients is known.
FACT--Obscenity is no longer a legimate issue. The authorizing language put in place a few years ago takes care of it; it leaves decisions to local communities and the courts, as it should be. The NEA is not in the business of funding obscenity or pornography, as some critics charge.
FACT--When we reach the millennium only five years from now, our artists, musicians, poets, dancers, and painters will lead the celebration. There will be a huge economic impact at home and from exporting our culture abroad. The NEA is the only mechanism that can pull that effort together. Thus the NEA has a very important future.
FACT--Art can be disturbing; art can be challenging. Some of it may be politically and socially activist. That is all within the legitimate scope of the NEA. But the NEA and the NEH are not in danger of being overrun with primarily political art. In fact most art sponsored by the NEA has no political content at all.
FACT--People who think the NEA is causing the moral decline of America are in the minority. The serious problems society has--violence, racism, welfare, education--are not caused by artists and the American public knows it. A few perverse works of art--past, present, or future--are way down the list of what people are worried about.
FACT--There is no leading nation in the world that does not support the arts, usually two, three, ten times as much as we do. Why should we be different? Public arts funding is a concept that stands beside public education as an obligation a government has to its people and to history.
As you make rounds on the Hill today, I would suggest that there is real reason for optimism. Many of the new members are beginning to really look at the issue instead of just reacting to emotional buttons like Mapplethorpe and Serrano. It is still going to be a tough fight, because the Republican party is going to have to accommodate the religious right as they run up to the 1996 election, and the religious right is permanently pitted against the NEA. We're going to have political survival verses the best interests of the country; but of course that's an old story in this town and I don't think we should be intimidated by it. But a lot of moderates and in fact many conservatives are coming around. It was heartening to read Jesse Helms' statement two weeks ago:
"I agree with those who have identified the good that many programs do for young people, indeed citizens of all ages. It may be possible to come up with a compromise that will be reasonably agreeable to most citizens."
I think that in talking to people who are under intense pressure from an element within their own party it is best just to keep returning to the extremely compelling facts and statistics that support the NEA. Legislative ideas of today may not seem so politically astute tomorrow so there is no need to fear immediate rejection in their offices. The balanced budget amendment did not pass; people on both sides of the aisle are taking a closer look at the Contract with America.
The most important point is that the support that is coming in for public funding of the arts and humanities cuts across all boundaries of class, religion, race, economic status, and political affiliation in this country. We have listened to the alernatives and return to the belief that the present system is the best. It will take a lot of courage and the expenditure of considerable political capital for some of our representatives to accept that and act upon it. Our job is to convince them that if they do, they will have helped the U.S. take its place among other nations that do not fear that arts, but employ their governments to put them in service to the future.