PATRONS OF the Huntington Theater Company, the largest resident theater in Boston and one of America's most eminent, may notice something different in their programs next year: There will be no acknowledgment of support from the National Endowment for the Arts. For the first time in memory, the Huntington has failed to receive a grant from the NEA. When its 1998 season gets underway, it will be without the help of the federal government.
A bad break for the Huntington? By no means. (Disclosure: I am a longtime Huntington subscriber and one of its overseers, but I speak here only for myself.) For one thing, NEA dollars have never amounted to more than a tiny fraction of the Huntington's operating budget; the theater will flourish with or without government largesse.
Secondly, the Huntington has many friends and supporters -- from its grand benefactor, Boston University, to the volunteer ushers who give so generously of their time. The words "National Endowment for the Arts" may not appear in its programs next year, but the names of thousands of other donors will. Their contributions come from the heart. The NEA's come from taxpayers who had no say in the matter.
Most important, getting off the federal dole will enhance the Huntington's integrity and independence. With government funding comes government control, and government control is always a threat to artistic truth and excellence. The NEA touts its grants as a kind of official stamp of approval for worthy art. But no serious artist wants to be patted on the head by the state. "I would rather have as my patron a host of anonymous citizens digging into their own pockets for the price of a book or a magazine," John Updike has written, "than a small body of enlightened and responsible men administering public funds."
Winslow Homer, 'The Veteran in a New Field' -- created without a government subsidy
The NEA's votaries, however, have no faith in the judgment of anonymous citizens. They see American art shriveling up unless taxpayers are forced to subsidize arts organizations anointed by the government. It never seems to register with them that American art blossomed long before there was an NEA. Somehow Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby without a government check. Somehow Homer painted The Veteran in a New Field. Somehow Copland composed Appalachian Spring. Graham's dances, Whitman's poems, Parker's jazz, Williams's plays -- somehow they all came about without Big Brother's help.
The NEA's budget now stands at $99 million, down one-third from last year. Congressional conservatives hope to zero it out altogether. The arts will not suffer if they do. The NEA, after all, has not exactly fueled an explosion of artistic genius. "In looking back over the past two or three decades," the distinguished essayist Joseph Epstein, longtime editor of The American Scholar, wrote in 1995, "what chiefly comes to mind are fizzled literary careers, outrageous exhibitions, and inflated . . . reputations in the visual arts." (Quick: Name one great American symphony -- or painting -- or poem -- created in the last 30 years.)
Yet NEA partisans warn of a new Dark Age if the endowment is shuttered. "We will have regained our position," groans Robert Brustein of the American Repertory Theater, "as the dumbest and most philistine democracy in the Western world."
Well. Back before anyone thought it was the government's business to subsidize art and entertainment, the dumbest and most philistine democracy in the Western world was incubating an artistic richness of unparalleled breadth and variety.
As William Craig Rice observes in the March/April issue of Policy Review, American communities of every description have long sustained painters, musicians, actors, and poets. A century ago, there were thriving arts havens in such far-flung towns as Berea, Ky.; Woodstock, N.Y.; Carmel, Calif., and Ogunquit, Maine. In the 1920s, Mabel Dodge Luhan moved from Greenwich Village to Santa Fe, N.M., establishing an arts center yeasty enough to draw the likes of D.H. Lawrence, John Marin, and Georgia O'Keeffe.
In Provincetown, Mass., actors "staged plays by Eugene O'Neill deemed too radical by New York theater producers. The Provincetown Players and other thespian groups have ever since attracted major talent." So does the Provincetown Art Association, which was founded in 1914.
Rice's article is an exuberant reminder of the power of volunteerism in American culture. He describes Tulsa, Okla. -- home to 15 museums, an opera, a ballet, and a symphony, all of them nurtured by a privately-funded Arts & Humanities Council that predates the NEA. In Louisville, Ky., the 48-year-old Fund for the Arts raises more than $5 million annually, thanks to the generosity of 30,000 local residents.
For more than half a century, the Wallace Stegner Fellowships at Stanford University have sustained promising new writers. So have the Hopwood awards at the University of Michigan. The Getty Trust gives away more money to the arts each year than the NEA. Ross Perot paid for the concert hall that houses the Dallas Symphony. Examples are numberless.
The story of the arts in America is one of stunning private generosity, unmatched by any society on earth. The NEA neither catalyzes, sustains, nor enriches American culture. The Huntington Theater Company can get along fine without it. So can we all.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)