The University Record, March 11, 1997

Budget perils face arts, humanities, say Wiesner speakers

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr set the tone for the Second Annual Jerome B. Wiesner Symposium focusing on the humanities and the arts with his keynote address, "The Future of Government: Lean, But Not Mean." Citing President Clinton's State of the Union Address commitment to the humanities and the arts, Schorr questioned how firm that commitment will remain once "bargaining on the budget with Congress gets tough. The arts and humanities, along with research and all the intellectual activities whose payoff cannot be quickly counted in gaskets and widgets," Schorr said, "lie in that soft part of `discretionary' spending which is so vulnerable to the axe. And the danger will be even greater after fiscal 1998 because of the huge unspecified cuts in domestic programs which is, as we say in Washington, `backloaded' to the later years."

Perhaps, Schorr said in the Feb. 24 address, the withdrawal of public support for the arts and humanities stems from America's "frontier psychology," long after the frontier has gone. He said it is a "psychology that promotes rugged individualism and waste of resources, assuming a vast margin for error, in a land of bountiful riches." But Schorr is optimistic that the "classes" will be brought together again through public institutions and publicly supported creative activities. "I think so because I'm an optimist," Schorr said. "I believe this is a maturing civilization, and when it reaches adulthood, there is no other way to go but acting as members of a community."

Still, acknowledging that the humanities and the arts will be greatly influenced by "leaner" government funding, Schorr encouraged those seeking such funds to argue the economic value to the nation and to education of the proposed project and then offered his wishes of "Good Luck!"

President Lee C. Bollinger reminded the standing-room-only audience in Rackham Amphitheater that the workings of a free market are not limited to just goods and services but apply to every social activity, including culture. Bollinger stressed that there is a sense of crisis surrounding the humanities and the arts, a crisis that involves confidence in standards. A rise in intellectual taste is challenging those standards, Bollinger said, emphasizing that the politicization of the humanities and the arts has weakened the public's confidence in the standards. "This is not a time of an easy ride through culture," Bollinger warned, "but a time to hang on for dear life."

Sheldon Hackney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, cautioned participants against believing that a free market could solve all problems. Richard Ekman, secretary of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, reminded the assemblage that the highest priorities for National Endowment for the Humanities funding are those things a university cannot do for itself, and cited the Middle English Dictionary as an example.

There are 30,000 foundations in the United States, Ekman said, managing about $10 billion. Of that amount, only $1 billion goes to the arts, with the humanities getting only $50 million per year from foundations, and a majority of that is from the Mellon Foundation. Ekman took up Schorr's admonition that proposals for project funding include information as to how the project relates to the public.

Kenneth Fischer, director of the University Musical Society, emphasized what doesn't
work in funding the arts and humanities. "Going it alone," Fischer said, "doesn't work." What does work, he said, is collaboration. "Risk-taking with collaboration is shared. Staff is shared."

If the future of funding for the arts and humanities is not all rosy, some aspects of the Wiesner Symposium brought a few less-than-rosy comments, too.

A visiting professor and playwright questioned the lack of artists on the panels, citing in particular a discussion on "Imagining a National Cultural Policy." Her comments centered on her observations that artists certainly have imagination. In a breakout session during the afternoon, Kevin Gilmartin, director of the Office of Major Events, noted that there also was no student representation.

Gilmartin went on to note, however, that the entire symposium was a "ground-breaking day," an "embryonic step" in dialogue about the humanities and the arts, a dialogue he hopes will continue through other such gatherings.