Alexander Fights to Save the National Endowment for the Arts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As part of her attempts to save the National Endowment for the Arts, Jane Alexander, the agency’s chair, convened a national arts conference, but the event met with criticism from both artists and political conservatives.

Summary of Event

In the summer of 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated actor Jane Alexander to become the sixth chairman (the title she preferred) of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). An unexpected nominee, Alexander was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate and was sworn into office on October 8, 1993. She thus became the first working artist to head the NEA. In addition to being an accomplished actor, Alexander was a film director and producer and an author. She had been active in the arts for all of her adult life, and as the chair of the NEA she was perceived to be an appealing and effective public advocate for an agency that was embattled. National Endowment for the Arts Arts, government subsidies for "ART-21" (arts conference)[Art twenty one] [kw]Alexander Fights to Save the National Endowment for the Arts (Apr. 14-16, 1994) [kw]National Endowment for the Arts, Alexander Fights to Save the (Apr. 14-16, 1994) [kw]Arts, Alexander Fights to Save the National Endowment for the (Apr. 14-16, 1994) National Endowment for the Arts Arts, government subsidies for "ART-21" (arts conference)[Art twenty one] [g]North America;Apr. 14-16, 1994: Alexander Fights to Save the National Endowment for the Arts[08850] [g]United States;Apr. 14-16, 1994: Alexander Fights to Save the National Endowment for the Arts[08850] [c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 14-16, 1994: Alexander Fights to Save the National Endowment for the Arts[08850] [c]Arts;Apr. 14-16, 1994: Alexander Fights to Save the National Endowment for the Arts[08850] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 14-16, 1994: Alexander Fights to Save the National Endowment for the Arts[08850] Alexander, Jane

Between the fall of 1993 and the spring of 1994, Alexander engaged in a series of high-profile barnstorming campaigns to promote the good works of the NEA. The hallmark of those efforts was the convening of the first national arts conference organized by the federal government, “ART-21: Art Reaches into the 21st Century.” The event took place in Chicago with funding from the MacArthur Foundation. In a press release, the NEA said that the conference would “address major trends, priorities, and fresh ideas in the arts as changes in resources, demographics, and technologies take our nation in new directions.”

Attended by approximately one thousand invited guests, the conference featured four keynote speakers who addressed four major themes: the artist in society, the arts and technology, expanding resources for the arts, and lifelong learning in the arts. “ART-21” was to provide a big tent for the arts, under which a reconciliation of conflicting aims and visions could be achieved. “ART-21” was central to Alexander’s attempt to improve the public image of the NEA and to aid in preserving the agency’s very existence in the face of increasing critical scrutiny from Congress.

The stated goals of “ART-21” were in harmony with the foundational principles of the NEA. At its inception on September 29, 1965, the NEA was authorized by an act of Congress to serve as an impartial and unbiased nurturer of the cultural life of America. The act authorized support only for projects that were nonprofit and substantively professional; the projects were to be selected by rotating panels of experts in their fields. These foundational principles relied on the modernist notions of art being loftier than mere commerce, serious, and objectively recognizable to impartial experts in the field. From its inception, the NEA was expected to be apolitical in its granting of support. Implicit to this expectation were the assumptions that art could be recognized and funded apolitically and that, through enlightened tolerance, conflicting visions could be reconciled.

In a press release for “ART-21,” Alexander stated: “On the eve of a new millennium, we, as a complex and diverse nation, must ask ourselves where we need to go and how we can get there. We at the Endowment need to ask what role the arts will play in enriching the lives of our citizens, the spirit of our communities, and our character as a nation.” Those questions were to be asked, and discussed, under the big tent provided by “ART-21.”

These stated goals of “ART-21” evidenced the modernist, or liberal, position that genius makes or recognizes fine art and that tolerance and sensitivity are key to the resolution of conflicts. To the select participants of the “ART-21” conference, Alexander said in her opening remarks: “The tie that unites us is a common love of the arts. And the arts mean different things to different people here in this room. Just as we strive to honor all people in America, so should we strive to honor their art, because that is what tells us who they are, who we are.” Those who celebrated the traditional liberal position implicit in the charter of the NEA were soon disappointed. Subsequent events proved politics to be much to the fore and harmony to be elusive.


Despite its hope for achieving harmony, the impact of the big tent offered by “ART-21” was one of increasing political conflict. Opposing critics of the event did, however, find harmony of a sort on one point. They agreed that “ART-21,” and Alexander’s leadership of the National Endowment for the Arts, was charismatic but superficial and lacking substance. The difficulty was that those outside the tent—for starkly different reasons—were disenchanted with those within the tent. One group outside the big tent offered by “ART-21” were postmodernists, who viewed the event as noninclusive, elitist, and ineffective. Another group outside the “ART-21” tent were political conservatives, who viewed the record of the NEA critically. The former would be heard through various journals and art media. The latter could not be ignored, given that, as a result of the electoral process, they would determine the budget for the agency.

The postmodernist critics of “ART-21” revealed the antagonism between postmodernism and modernism. Postmodernists reject the modernist notions of art being apolitical, serious, and recognizable to impartial experts in the field. They assume that art is necessarily political and often absurd and that experts in the field are anything but impartial. Consequently, they criticized “ART-21” as elitist, not sufficiently inclusive, financially prohibitive to attend, and, consequently, undemocratic and discriminatory. They also viewed the four themes of the conference, noted above, as too traditional and too restrictive. They criticized Alexander’s comments at the conference for being too broad in scope, too mainstream, and too evasive of the debates surrounding the difficult questions of defending and promoting controversial art to the public. For postmodernist critics, “ART-21” missed a golden opportunity to advance strategies for resolving, defending, and justifying what they called “difficult art” to the public. There is an irony in that criticism. In clear contradiction to the (modernist) charter of the NEA, authorizing it to serve as an impartial nurturer of the fine arts in the United States, the postmodernist critics of “ART-21” found fault and hypocrisy in its attempt to be impartial and inclusive.

The conservative critics of “ART-21,” and of the NEA in general, shared with the postmodernists a skepticism about the possibility and propriety of the NEA’s being an impartial nurturer of the fine arts. They did so in three distinct fashions. First, they questioned the idea that the awarding of grants can in fact be impartial. In this respect, they viewed the NEA with the suspicion that it is outside the mainstream of American culture and that it promotes a particular social and political agenda. Second, they argued that the NEA—if it is to exist—should, in fact, be what it must be: partial. It should advocate the preservation and advancement of traditional American culture. Third, they argued that the politicization of culture, which they viewed as inherent to governmentally subsidized art, is inescapably totalitarian.

At the same time postmodernist critics were expressing their displeasure with “ART-21” for being too mainstream and too timid, a number of books were published that argued just the opposite point: that the NEA had lost its cultural moorings. Robert Hughes, Hughes, Robert a former art critic for Time magazine, presented a scathing critique of the contemporary fine arts in two venues: a lecture delivered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993, “Making the World Safe for Elitism” (published in The Washington Post), and a book titled Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (1993). Culture of Complaint (Hughes) This criticism was accompanied by various other works, including Gertrude Himmelfarb’s On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (1994). On Looking into the Abyss (Himmelfarb)

Those books made Alexander’s attempt to save the NEA more difficult, but they were not nearly as damaging as a variety of artistic events funded either directly or indirectly by the NEA itself. In a performance piece by Ron Athey, Athey, Ron for example, the back of a person was cut with a knife, the blood was soaked up with a cloth, and the cloth was then sent over the heads of the audience. The resulting controversy made this work and others difficult for Alexander to defend before the public and before Congress.

The “ART-21” conference proved ineffective in Alexander’s battle to save the NEA. However, in contrast to the generalities about the importance of the NEA that appeared in Alexander’s “1994 Annual Report: Chairman’s Statement,” her testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 8, 1996, was more sanguine. Alexander noted that the 1996 budget process resulted in the deepest funding cut in the history of the NEA. She also lamented that the NEA was forced to suspend nearly all grants to individual artists.

The NEA’s funding of “difficult art” clearly contributed to the agency’s problems in obtaining congressional funding. It is haunting to read Alexander’s comment in that same testimony of May 8, 1996: “The phase-out proposal about which we hear so much is a creation of the House leadership, and the fact is, they do not have the votes to pass it.” Soon after, the House of Representatives voted to phase out the NEA, and the Senate was poised to do the same. However, Alexander was able to salvage a budget of $98 million for the NEA for fiscal year 1998. Shortly after, on October 8, 1997, she announced that she was stepping down from her position as chairman of the NEA so that she could resume her acting career.

There were substantive issues at stake that were not addressed by “ART-21.” The issue of whether “difficult art” should or should not be funded warranted serious evaluation. Alexander’s realization of the complexity of this concern was suggested in her later comments. In testimony she gave on April 24, 1997, to the Senate Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, Alexander spoke not of confidence that the votes to close down the NEA were lacking, but rather of the importance of a modest increase in the NEA’s budget “to preserve our heritage and invest in our future. The National Endowment for the Arts remains committed to bringing the most excellent art to the most Americans. Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, I hope I can count on your support.” Obtaining that support was linked to the decision to be partial about funding, or not funding, “difficult art.” It was also linked to a substantive debate concerning three conflicting paradigms for art and culture: modernist, postmodernist, and conservative. National Endowment for the Arts Arts, government subsidies for "ART-21" (arts conference)[Art twenty one]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Jane. Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000. Entertaining memoir presents Alexander’s own viewpoint on her tenure as head of the NEA. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Douglas. “Multicultural Wars.” Art in America 83 (February, 1995): 35-42. Presents a critical review of the “ART-21” conference from an essentially postmodernist perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jarvik, Laurence. “Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, April 29, 1997, 1-14. Offers a politically conservative critique of the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Endowment for the Arts. Six Myths About the National Endowment for the Arts. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997. The agency’s own brief defense of its work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zeigler, Joseph Wesley. Arts in Crisis: The National Endowment for the Arts Versus America. Pennington, N.J.: A Cappella Books, 1994. Begins with a history of funding for the arts in the United States and then discusses the role of the NEA and the controversies that have surrounded that agency.

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Categories: History