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Money for the Arts ...

The National Endowment for the Arts has to consider itself fortunate to have $99.5 million to distribute in the coming year. That's 40 percent less than it had in its last budget. But if some conservatives in Congress had their way, the agency would no longer exist.

The endowment's chairwoman, actress Jane Alexander, gets much of the credit for the continued, meaningful functioning of a leaner NEA. She has tirelessly defended a program whose grants - large and small - have nurtured arts projects ranging from tiny local dance companies to the "Great Performances" series on public television.

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Ms. Alexander's work became more difficult after the congressional elections of 1994, when the NEA was targeted by that year's Republican revolutionaries in the House of Representatives. The arts endowment did not, however, play big in this year's elections; the heat may be easing.

That heat grew nearly unbearable in the late '80s and early '90s, when a NEA-supported exhibit by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe - plus a few other grant-based shows that had sexual or antireligion themes - brought outcries from the religious right. Those memories are still sharp. But two things should be kept in mind.

First, material that pushes the boundaries of taste and acceptability and sparks controversy has never gotten more than a tiny share of the thousands of grants made by the endowment over the years. Second, the Mapplethorpe flareup was a needed warning to the NEA. Privately, the arts have a free rein; experimentation can be an element of progress. But public money and public taste are inseparable. Taxpayers' dollars should not be used to underwrite projects that clearly exceed standards of decency.

Yes, that's a hard call for NEA grantmakers. But it has to be part of their assessment if the arts agency is to fully recover public favor.

This year, many worthy organizations won't get a share of the NEA's reduced funding. But the agency has solid leadership, a still-substantial fund of public goodwill, lots of good credits to its name, and improved grantmaking procedures. Most important, its work of fostering new art and preserving old is of inestimable value to America.

Clear-thinking members of Congress from both parties will recognize that public support for the arts has a role in this society and help banish the political clouds that still hang over the NEA, and not the agency itself.

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