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In January 2003, with the war in Iraq just over the horizon, President Bush faced many more pressing challenges than choosing a new chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts. But when he picked Dana Gioia to lead the once embattled agency, the president made what now looks like one of the most successful appointments of his administration. Mr. Gioia’s recent announcement that he will step down at the beginning of 2009 marks the right moment to reflect on the revolution he made at the NEA.
A decade ago, public support for the agency was at an all-time low, after the uproar over its funding of works such as Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” and photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Work by an artist who took off her clothes and smeared herself in chocolate, Karen Finley, was nearly funded. In 1996, Congress slashed the agency’s budget to less than $100 million, and a large bloc of congressmen regularly voted to abolish the NEA altogether.
Today, as a result of Mr. Gioia’s leadership, the NEA is not just surviving but thriving. As chairman, Mr. Gioia put into practice the same philosophy of the arts he advanced in “Can Poetry Matter?”, his widely discussed 1991 essay in the Atlantic Monthly. “The most serious question for the future of American culture,” he wrote back then, “is whether the arts will continue to exist in isolation and decline into subsidized academic specialties or whether some possibility of rapprochement with the educated public remains.”
At the NEA, Mr. Gioia helped to effect that “rapprochement” with innovative and genuinely democratic programs. “Shakespeare in American Communities” brought professional acting troupes to high schools across the country; “Poetry Out Loud” encouraged thousands of students to revive the lost art of poetry recitation; “Operation Homecoming” gave American veterans a chance to write about their experiences.
Congress has responded accordingly. As the Sun’s Kate Taylor reported last week, this year’s $20 million boost in the NEA’s budget was the largest increase in 29 years. The budget of the NEA is still tiny compared with those of most government agencies. The $150 million it has to spend this year would fund NASA for about two days. Yet the NEA’s influence on the nation’s arts community — and on its cultural capital, New York City — goes beyond dollar amounts. By restoring the vigor of the NEA, Mr. Gioia has helped to break the cultural deadlock.
Mr. Gioia’s success makes the case harder for those of us who have long believed that it doesn’t make sense to borrow money from Communist China or tax ordinary Americans to provide government handouts to artists. It’s harder because Mr. Gioia has made it clear that much good can come out of a government-funded arts program. Whether the next chairman can sustain those gains, or whether the organization backslides or reverts to type, will be a test of the new administration.