Explaining that she wishes to give something back in return for the rich life she has experienced in the arts, actress Jane Alexander made her congressional debut before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee on Sept. 22 and was swiftly and unanimously confirmed as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Although unanimity is rare on the committee, the proceedings, which were chaired by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), went so smoothly that the committee waived the customary waiting period and forwarded Alexander’s name the same day to the full Senate. That body approved her appointment by voice vote the following week.
“I came here this morning thinking I was going to participate in a confirmation process, but I think we are participating in a deification process,” quipped Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) in response to the flood of praise that greeted Alexander’s appearance before the committee.
“If not a deification, a coronation at least,” shot back Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.). Alexander was introduced by Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), who praised her work teaching young people in his state, and Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), who commended President Clinton for his “wise and brilliant choice,” and acknowledged the actress for her sacrifice in interrupting a successful theatre and film career to become a public servant.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) echoed the praise, noting, “It’s about time we had someone from the arts in this position.” He acknowledged that Alexander is uniquely qualified to help restore confidence in the NEA, but cautioned that “the NEA has to face the fact that its constituency is not the arts community; its constituency is the American people.”
Conspicuously absent was Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), a known opponent of the NEA, but even conservative Senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) read a glowing statement of support. NEA nemesis Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who is not on the committee, had already tipped his hand to the press, stating that he intended to support Alexander’s nomination, noting that his daughter’s name is Jane Alexander Helms.
Lurking in the hall outside the hearing room was Christian Action Network president Martin Mawyer, who complained that his organization had submitted a list of 20 questions, but the committee had failed to ask any of them. He expressed frustration that the hearings did not succeed in getting Alexander on the record in response to reforms he believes the agency needs.
Alexander did address head-on the tension between the NEA’s supporters and detractors in her statement before the committee. “The arts,” she said, “should not be used as a political football by those on the far right or the far left. The arts are for everyone.”
She acknowledged that she could not promise that the arts would be free of controversy under her chairmanship, but assured the committee she will be accountable. She said she intends to let the American people know all the good the NEA has done, and to travel to as many states as possible, talking and listening to people. “The arts are a community issue,” she concluded. “They bring together, they do not rend asunder.”
Press coverage of the hearings was mostly positive in the following days. Although the ultra-conservative Washington Times characterized Alexander’s ringing endorsement by the arts community as “like a pack of foxes endorsing a particular brand of chicken wire,” the Washington Post heralded Alexander’s selection and smooth reception as hints of a turning tide.
Alexander was expected to be on the job early in October, marking a new era in the history of the NEA.
Best for the Most
Excerpts from Jane Alexander’s Sept. 22 statement before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee:
The life I have led in the theatre, in the world of art, has given so much to me personally–particularly from Endowment-supported works–that I wish to give something back. Perhaps I can make a real contribution at this difficult time.
The Endowment has struggled these past few years to keep itself alive and valued in the public eye. In these 28 years, it has awarded 100,000 grants. It has been an unparalleled success, perhaps the most successful of any of the independent federal agencies. Directly and indirectly, it has affected most artists and arts organizations alive today and created an arts economy of about 6 percent of the Gross National Product, and over 2 1/2 percent of our work force. The Endowment’s budget is modest in comparison with other government agencies, but with its $175 million budget last year, it created a 20-fold return in jobs, services and contracts. In partnership with the private sector, it leveraged that $175 million to almost $1.4 billion.
With all its accomplishments, how has the Endowment managed lately to be depicted as a villain? A handful of controversial grants had taken the focus from the thousands upon thousands of grants that have enhanced the lives of millions. I respect the right of people to be heard–the voices of those who are disturbed by art and the voices of the creative community. This, after all, is the greatness of our democratic system. But the arts should not be used as a political football by those on the far right or the far left. The arts are for everyone. The Endowment is too important to be misused by some who disseminate misinformation for their own ends or attack the Endowment as a campaign platform.
I believe strongly that the sound and the fury of the past few years over that handful of controversial grants must end. When judging the National Arts Endowment, we must look at the complete picture. Let’s give the arts a chance to help us heal and understand one another.
I cannot promise that under my chairmanship the arts will be free of controversy. The very essence of art, after all, is to hold the mirror up to nature; the arts reflect the diversity and variety of human experience. We are, as Hamlet says, “the abstracts and brief chroniclers of the time.” and as such, the artist often taps into the very issues of society that are most sensitive. I can, however, assure Congress that I will follow the statutory guidelines on funding to the very best of my ability to insure that grants are given for the highest degree of artistic merit and excellence. I will be accountable and look forward to working with members of Congress. My goal for the arts is that the best reaches the most.
I intend to let the American people know the truth about the Endowment and the value of the arts in each and every one of their lives. I am committed to making the Endowment a driving force for education. I also look forward to an enhanced partnership with the private sector. I want to work with state arts councils and local agencies to develop new and innovative ways to reach communities everywhere. I hope to travel all across this country to listen to the people about their needs with regard to the arts, from the most rural area to the inner city.
I have a vision for the arts in this country. That vision is that every man, woman and child find the song in his or her heart. I see the arts as part of the solution to our problems and not, in any way, part of the problem. Through the arts, we release the very best that is in our imaginations, and it is through our imagination that we draw the map for our future. Through the arts we learn the discipline of a skill and the accomplishment that comes with collaboration, The arts are a community issue. They bring together, they do not rend asunder.