1980-1981 National Endowment for the Arts
NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS -
Livingston Biddle, Chairman
Reporting near the end of his term, Livingston Biddle wrote in 1980, “The Endowment has had some controversial moments; and yet controversy is the yeast that makes the creative loaf rise.” During Biddle’s chairmanship, he and his staff took advantage of a relatively tranquil era to expand support for diverse artists reflecting American society. The Biddle era was one in which the Arts Endowment attained a well-defined stature as an institution representing American creative aspirations. There were difficulties in trying to reflect a splintering and volatile art world, but Biddle met them by developing new programs for historically underrepresented groups, supporting both traditional and avant-garde art.
The election of President Reagan in 1980 brought a different philosophy to the federal government, and initially, many in the new Administration questioned the propriety and expense of a public agency funding the arts.
The NEA’s next chairman, Frank Hodsoll, faced a number of challenges, including a funding cut. By the end of his second term in 1989, however, the NEA emerged with a budget increased to $169 million. Important new initiatives such as the American Jazz Master Fellowship—now known as NEA Jazz Masters—and the National Medal of Arts were created, and the agency assumed the mantle of leadership in arts education. At the same time, and deriving primarily from Hodsoll’s background in government and public policy, the Arts Endowment focused on building infrastructures and support networks for the arts, cultivating new audiences, and fostering sustainability among arts organizations.
Hodsoll came to the Arts Endowment from the staff of the Reagan White House. With a background as a lawyer and U.S. Army officer, and with 14 years in the Foreign Service, he had joined his friend James A. Baker III in the Reagan election campaign. While working on the campaign, Hodsoll was asked to look into the reasons why Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director David Stockman was trying to “zero out”—completely abolish—the NEA.
Interviewed almost a quarter-century later, Hodsoll recalled that, at the time, he barely knew what the NEA was or why it was targeted for elimination. As it happened, the matter was an early expression of the “culture war” between liberals and conservatives that was then emerging in American life. A former U.S. Representative, David Stockman viewed the NEA as one of many examples of the federal government’s excessive influence in public life. Inheriting a sluggish economy and a large federal deficit, Stockman was looking for programs to cut in order to restrict the size of the federal government.
The first indicators of the new Administration’s direction were not promising. Under the alarming headline, “Pages from Budget Director Stockman’s ‘Black Book’” (Washington Post, February 8, 1981), a story appeared with the following notes and comments about a proposed 50 percent budget cut: “Reductions of this magnitude are premised on the notion that the Administration should completely revamp federal policy for arts and humanities support. For too long, the Endowments have spread federal financing into an ever- wider range of artistic and literary endeavor, promoting the notion that the federal government should be the financial patron and first resort for both individuals and institutions engaged in artistic and literary pursuits. This policy has resulted in a reduction in the historic role of private individual and corporate philanthropic support in these key areas.” The Reagan Administration had to consider whether arts funding should continue at existing levels when cuts were to be made in welfare and other social programs.