When former actor Ronald Reagan announced he was going to cut federal funding for cultural programs by 50 percent, dancers stumbled, writers snapped their pencils, and potters kicked their kilns.
But arts supporters' cries of "crisis, their envisioning of darkened playhouses and muted poets across the land, may have been premature.
Congress is moving toward a restoration of funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. And even if the recent rapid rise in government art patronage is slowed in the name of austerity, the Reagans (Nancy Reagan is particularly interested in the subject) have plans for some new ways to officially promote cultural advancement.
The White House Task Force on the Arts and Humanities held its first meeting recently, an impressive gathering of performers, intellectuals, corporate executives, and professional arts promoters. This was not a group, as co-chairman Charlton Heston said, to preside over the demise of federal arts support. Not with New York City Opera general director Beverly Sills, Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, and Kimbal Art Museum director Edmund Pillsbury among its 36 members.
The group's broad mandate is to find ways of encouraging greater private support for the arts and humanities (individual as well as corporate) and to explore how the federal government can play a more effective, if less direct, role in stimulating such support. It is to report back to the President by Sept. 30.
A number of ideas are being considered. These include changing tax law to encourage more giving by corporations and individuals (perhaps through an income tax form checkoff for cultural contributions), and a public arts and humanities corporation similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Such a corporation, some think, would make the federal involvement a little less bureaucratic, a little more independent.
The Reagans intend not only to attend many cultural events but also to invite a wide range of performers and groups to the White House.
"The interest is in showcasing all sorts of talent and not just old, established, famous names," says White House arts adviser Aram Bakshian Jr. "This would involve things such as encouraging young talent, spotlighting young talent . . . having a wide range of talent here for events, a large troupe, a small troupe, a regional troupe."
On Capitol Hill, a key House appropriations subcommittee recently voted to allot the national endowments for arts and humanities 90 percent of their projected 1982 funding levels (compared with 50 percent Mr. Reagan has called for). The Congressional Arts Caucus, headed by a former big-band leader, Rep. Fred Richmond (D) of New York, now has more than 140 members. LAwmakers have been inundated with pleas for support from artists, performers, museum curators, and the like.
How future arts and humanities budgets are shaped remains to be worked out between the more-friendly House and dominant Republicans in the Senate.
In any case, the Reagan administration wants to bring its own philosophy to how the federal government approaches cultural matters.
In addressing the arts and humanities task force, the President reminded members that the establishment French Academy had turned up its collective nose at the work of impressionist painters.
"The main feeling is, we don't want a Washington- dominated . . . set of cultural standards," Bakshian said in a later interview. "Should the government be in a position of saying what is and isn't approved culture?"
The White House arts adviser points out that funding for the endowments has increased more rapidly than general federal spending in recent years. A top official with one of the national endowments concedes that "they grew faster than good management would permit."
Bakshian (an amiable young man who has written a German-language book on Robert Stolz, Austria's last waltz and operetta master), feels thare has been a general blossoming of the arts in the United States in recent years, independent of the increased federal involvement. He disagrees with those who say that increased corporate giving has been stimulated principally by federal grants.
He notes that only 26 percent of American corporations make charitable contributions, and fewer still (6 percent) give the maximum that is tax-deductible. It is this reservoir that President Reagan -- because of his background as a performer and close ties with big business -- hopes to tap.
"Culture is not going to die in this country, no matter what we do," says Bakshian. "The great geniuses and also the great periods of collective vitality were there before there was any federal role, so I'm not worried about the future of the arts."