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Nashville Scene Middle Man

NEA Chairman Bill Ivey negotiates the worlds of art and politics

By Lisa A. DuBois

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  When Bill Ivey accepted the post of chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, some Nashvillians who follow national politics thought he'd lost his mind. While proud of their adopted hometown boy for catching the eye of the country's most powerful leaders, they couldn't fathom why he'd leave the safe confines of the Country Music Foundation--where for a quarter of a century he'd reigned as its esteemed commander--to take over a tiny, shell-shocked governmental agency that, in one fell swoop, might be voted into oblivion.

Ivey, however, surveyed the political landscape and saw something others had missed--shifting attitudes at the close of the millennium. After eight years, the Washington crowd was searching for an excuse to back off the beleaguered arts organization. Bill Ivey gave them the perfect out.

A soft-voiced academician with an intense knowledge of Americana, Ivey has quickly eased the fears of many of the nation's conservatives, who view the NEA as a breeding ground for leftist radicalism. Given that they tried and failed to destroy the organization, Republicans' prayers were answered when President Clinton appointed a man whom even the most fervent right-winger could love. Ivey is a peacemaker, a negotiator, charged with striking a balance between the avant-garde and the old-hat. He is the consummate white knight come to the rescue--for the moment, at least.

The ride began in December 1997, when President Clinton tapped Ivey to succeed actress Jane Alexander, who was retiring after four bruising years as the NEA head. While Ivey had risen to prominence as the sovereign force behind the Country Music Foundation--the world-class library and archive that operates the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum--he was also building a reputation among the nation's most prestigious arts groups. For four years, he'd served on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and was twice named national chairman of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). Over the course of 20 years, he chaired or served on 15 different NEA grant panels, ranging from jazz fellowships to folk and traditional arts education.

He already had a long-standing relationship with the NEA dating back to 1973, when he received partial funding from the Endowment to commission Thomas Hart Benton's epic painting, "The Sources of Country Music," which hangs in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The painting turned out to be Benton's final masterpiece--the artist died before he got a chance to sign it.

Ivey's various interests also enabled him to mingle with the folks in Washington. A year ago, he escorted Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Grammy Awards ceremony, and when the NEA post became available, people in her camp subsequently threw his name into the ring.

For several months following his nomination, Ivey commuted to Washington to meet the important players and engage in his homegrown brand of diplomacy. Says Kyle Young, who worked with Ivey for 22 years at CMF and recently succeeded him as its director, "Bill is perhaps the most intelligent man I've ever met. He's politically savvy, and a real consensus builder."

Republicans and Democrats alike welcomed Ivey into the fold as he conversed knowingly about people and issues in their states. With longtime NEA adversary Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Ivey schmoozed about country star Randy Travis, a fellow North Carolinian. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who in 1994 complained that the National Endowment for the Arts "offends the Constitution of the United States," was reportedly impressed by the nominee's close association with country music. By the end of May, Ivey had swept through the Senate confirmation process without a hearing, unanimously approved by the Labor and Human Resources Committee.

If the ease of Ivey's confirmation signaled a truce in the Congress vs. NEA conflict, a few months later the newly appointed head was scoring some definite wins. Late last summer, the House of Representatives, home to the agency's most ardent critics, voted 253 to 173 not to dismantle the agency and to retain the Endowment's $98 million level of financing for the upcoming year. The margin of victory was astounding.

"We always knew we had the majority support in the House, but we couldn't get a vote, because the leaders [including then-Speaker Newt Gringrich] were against us. For two years we begged them to let us have an up or down vote. Finally they gave up and gave us the vote, and we killed 'em," says NEA congressional liaison Dick Woodruff. The Senate subsequently approved financing at the same funding level.

Ivey says his own involvement in the triumph should not be overplayed. "I think [the Endowment's recent stabilization] is coincidental to my nomination," he muses. In some ways, he's right. The dynamics among leaders in the House were changing, and opponents were beginning to relax about the organization's direction. But rather than just begrudgingly accepting Ivey, the congressional critics rolled out the welcome wagon.

Former chairman Jane Alexander, who endured massive budget cuts and constant battles with House conservatives to keep the Endowment alive, must be pinching herself to be sure she's awake and living in the same America. Where Alexander was scorned, Ivey has been embraced. Where Alexander was bombarded by the agency's detractors, Ivey is having amicable, mellow discussions with those same politicians. After her difficult tenure, Alexander can be credited with saving a sinking ship. Fresh and unscathed, Ivey is now charged with setting a new course.

Historically, setting a national course for creative expression has always been a thorny issue. The U.S.A. is a country of immigrants and pioneers driven by innovative impulses and short attention spans. Because America has no all-encompassing national culture, the Endowment's mission has always been tough to define.

Congress established the NEA in 1965 for the purpose of helping "to create and sustain...a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry." From a startup of less than $3 million in 1966, the agency's budget climbed steadily through successive administrations, peaking out at $175 million in 1993.

In its nascent period in the 1960s, according to professor and legal historian Julie Van Camp, some legislators worried about the NEA becoming a "cultural czar" and that federal support "could lead to political attempts to control culture." They raised concerns that peer review panels might suppress artistic freedom by financing safe and mainstream projects.

Ironically, it was experimental art that nearly scuttled the organization. By the 1980s, the Endowment had grown into a substantial federal agency, with a fully loaded internal bureaucracy and a somewhat obsolescent system of grant-making. At that time, the NEA funded artistic endeavors in two ways: through direct grants to organizations for specific projects; and through indirect grants to arts groups that then awarded sub-grants to individuals.

Along the way, the NEA loosened its grip over how arts organizations put these indirect grants to use. In 1989, conservatives' tempers exploded when they discovered that indirect federal grants helped fund a display of homoerotic photography by Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as an exhibit by Andres Serrano that included "Piss Christ," a picture of a crucifix immersed in urine. Although 100,000 grants had passed muster, a handful of dicey ones got all the attention, setting off a firestorm.

Responding to the debate in the late '80s, agency chairman John Frohnmayer withdrew a grant that had been approved for Karen Finley, a performance artist whose act included smearing her naked body with chocolate to protest the oppression of women. By then it was too late for Frohnmayer, who was fired by President Bush. Congress quickly passed contentious legislation prohibiting NEA grant recipients from "promoting, disseminating, or producing" obscene materials. In 1990, Finley and three other performance artists filed a lawsuit to argue against the "obscenity" clause as arbitrary and discriminatory. The lower courts sided with the artists.

Congress struck back in 1994 by slashing the NEA budget by $5 million. Conservative members of the House threatened to disembowel the agency when it came up for reauthorization. Failing to do so, they then swore they'd slay the beast by allocating a zero-dollar budget. The gauntlet was thrown down, and NEA Chairman Jane Alexander was left to fend off attacks, as the budget was whittled down by $8 million in 1995 and then by $63 million in 1996.

By June 1998, three events helped to brighten the Endowment's future. First, anti-NEA fervor in Congress simmered down. Many members of the ultraconservative "Freshman Class of 1994" (a conglomerate of NEA adversaries) either failed to be reelected, were forced out of office, or had switched to more politically moderate positions. Second, Ivey was in place as the new NEA chairman. And, finally, the Finley case was heard before the United States Supreme Court.

Ruling 8 to 1, in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court upheld the so-called "decency" clause, requiring the NEA "to take into account general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." O'Connor insisted that the law was advisory and that it be considered among the many guidelines the NEA already uses when determining awards for arts projects.

Aside from the artists who lost the case, everyone else with a stake in the issue declared victory. Conservative groups like the American Center for Law and Justice called the ruling "a major victory for common decency," while the Christian Coalition lauded the court for upholding the rights of taxpayers "forced to fund pornography and indecency under the guise of art."

Amazingly, the other side was equally gleeful. Immediately after the ruling, Ivey issued a statement supporting the Court's decision as a "reaffirmation of the agency's discretion in funding the highest quality art in America." He added that the NEA "remains committed to First Amendment protection of freedom of expression." Liberal organizations like the Freedom Forum and the American Civil Liberties Union expressed relief that the ruling "did little damage to the First Amendment." The ACLU said that the Supreme Court's admittedly "opaque" language renders the law "essentially meaningless."

By wrapping the "decency and respect" clause in such nonpunitive terms, Justice O'Connor essentially vaulted the agency into protected waters, ensuring its long-term salvation.

Ivey sealed the deal by taking a proactive approach to potential controversies looming elsewhere. For example, he saw trouble brewing before the opening of Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi, which had the theater world abuzz over its depiction of Jesus as a homosexual. The NEA had already funded a completely different project called Corpus Christi, which was to be staged by the Manhattan Theatre Club. The directors of this production later came back to the agency, said they'd decided not to do the play, and asked to apply the money to two other projects. The panel reviewed and approved their request.

Ivey quickly got the word out to clarify that McNally's controversial play had no real connection to the NEA. "The burden was on me--and I was willing to take on the burden--of explaining to Congress what very limited connection there was between the Endowment and [Corpus Christi]. And once I did, everything seemed to be fine," he says.

Only a few months in office, and Ivey was already on a roll. The moment had arrived to envision the agency, in his words, "beyond a bunker mentality."

At age 54, the silver-haired Ivey is a portrait of the new millennium's Renaissance Man. Born in Calumet, Mich., he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan and his master's degree in folklore and ethnomusicology from Indiana University. He plays guitar, has his pilot's license, and flies a restored 1939 Piper Cub airplane. (At Ivey's official swearing-in ceremony, Vice President Al Gore listed the nominee's many talents and remarked that Ivey, a gifted guitar player, usually toted around a guitar pick with him at all times. Smiling, the new chairman reached into his pocket and pulled out a small plastic pick, much to the amusement of the crowd.)

In 1971, Frances Preston and Bill Denny hired the recent graduate to head up the Country Music Foundation, which up to that point had operated as part of the Country Music Association. "Bill was studying folk music and folk culture in school, and we were looking for someone with a strong academic background," says Denny, past board chairman and CMF president. "We wanted someone to grow a collection so the museum could be both a reservoir of information and a showcase."

During his tenure, Ivey surrounded himself with first-class staff members. In addition to Kyle Young, respected music journalists Jay Orr and Robert Oermann, and stars Kathy Mattea, Trisha Yearwood, and Larry Stewart all had early careers at the Hall of Fame. Over the decades, the museum collection has grown to 1 million items, and a capital campaign is under way to build a new $35 million Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum across from the Nashville Arena. Young has taken over the capital campaign begun by Ivey and--contrary to published reports--has already raised $10 million, remaining on schedule for a spring or summer ground-breaking.

If Ivey's ties to country music instantly endeared him to pols and arts denizens in the heartland, it stupefied those entrenched in the more erudite echelons of American culture. Writing about Ivey's nomination, journalist Henry Goldstein admitted that while "a whiff of East Coast elitism" hangs over the NEA, having this Tennessee guy in charge might result in lower standards. "An opera whose libretto runs along the lines of 'guy loses truck, dog, girl and gun in Act I and recovers them all at the final curtain,' " he opined, "may now be a good bet for a grant."

Ivey's local supporters think that criticism is unfair. "I suppose Bill made the terrible mistake of being associated with the South, which still carries a stigma," huffs singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris, a perennial CMF and arts advocate. "Bill is not a Southerner, but his heart is occupied with Southern music because so much of the richness of American music comes from the South. If people spent five minutes talking to Bill, they'd realize he knows a lot about all American music and its part in American culture."

Young agrees that Ivey's expertise transcends the vernacular: "Bill has brought a populist view to the position, but that view is not exclusive of opera, classical music, and fine art."

Now settled in Washington, Ivey is light years away from his windowless office in the basement of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a Music Row attraction where tourists wander the halls, gawking at Elvis Presley's gold Cadillac and peering through display windows filled with guitars, boots, and rhinestone-studded stagewear. Today his digs are much classier. He works in an upstairs office on 1100 Pennsylvania Ave., in the old Post Office Pavilion building in the heart of the District's legislative action. On the historic walls he has hung works by Tennessee artists John Baeder, Marilyn Murphy, Kit Reuther, and Jane Braddock--all on loan from Nashville's Cumberland Gallery.

Down the hall, NEA staff workers flurry around their cramped cubicles carrying out the daily business of a multimillion-dollar federal agency. Their mood is one of relief--and long-awaited optimism. Ivey has already implemented several new initiatives. Like Alexander before him, he's revamped the grant-making panels, and adjudicators on each panel now come from a variety of backgrounds and arts organizations. The NEA no longer awards grants to individuals. State arts councils like the Tennessee Arts Commission, which collectively receive 40 percent of the NEA's annual budget, must now shoulder a greater responsibility for equitably distributing agency monies.

Because NEA grant money has traditionally been weighted toward the Northeast, Ivey has also initiated ArtsREACH, a pilot outreach program designed to channel more NEA grants into 20 underserved states. Tennessee is among those under-represented areas and has already received five ArtsREACH grants totaling $50,000. In addition, last year the NEA distributed $648,800 in grants to such state arts groups as Carpetbag Theatre in Knoxville, the Nashville Symphony, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. The recently completed Tennessee Foxtrot Carousel was the recipient of a special $25,000 NEA Chairman's Award to support the creation and fabrication of the Leroy Carr figure, based on the legendary blues guitarist and Nashville native.

Tops on Ivey's agenda is a push for federal politicians to free up an additional $50 million to instigate "Challenge America," a program that uses the power of the arts to strengthen the nation's communities by targeting arts education, access to the arts, youth at risk, cultural/heritage preservation, and community arts partnerships. His focus, he says in repeated speeches to groups around the nation, is bringing the arts into American communities and allowing all citizens to participate in artistic pursuits.

Ivey's broad rural focus has presented Tennessee's congressional leaders with both an opportunity and a dilemma. Local politics dictates that they support a home-state colleague; national politics dictates that they maintain their distance. Ivey says that, in particular, Republican Sen. Bill Frist, along with Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), worked his nomination through the Senate and paid it the most attention. "Senator Frist," he says, "has been very thoughtful and engaged, and personally very helpful to me."

Last fall, when Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) crafted an amendment that would have eliminated funding for the NEA, Frist ably navigated uncomfortable waters. Although he did vote to reduce funding, he did not vote to eliminate the agency. (The bill was trounced 76-22.) The extended Frist family has a long and storied history of supporting the arts and cultural activities in the state. Observes one local arts pundit, "The Cheekwood ladies would never let Senator Frist get by with voting to cut off funds for the NEA."

In explaining his position, Sen. Frist offers cautious support of the Endowment, saying, "Bill Ivey is doing an excellent job in bringing common sense to the NEA. While I remain concerned about the NEA's tendency to unduly favor cosmopolitan areas--particularly New York City--with its support, I believe he's working hard to resolve the controversies which have plagued the NEA in the past."

Sen. Fred Thompson's reactions to Ivey's new post are harder to explain. Thompson is well known not only as a lawyer, but also as a film actor. His brother Ken Dale Thompson is one of Nashville's most respected theater performers, and has appeared in such shows as Tennessee Repertory Theatre's Big River and Ain't Got Long to Stay Here, and American Negro Playwright Theatre's A Raisin in the Sun. On the surface, Thompson and the NEA would appear to be soulmates.

But Thompson's response to the agency has been ambivalent. The senator "was very helpful to me during the confirmation process," Ivey recalls. "In fact, it was Senator Thompson who called me from the floor of the Senate the night I was finally confirmed to say that my name would be coming up within 20 minutes or half an hour and I should watch C-Span." Curiously, Thompson later voted in favor of Ashcroft's amendment to eliminate the agency.

When asked by the Scene why he voted to eliminate the NEA, Thompson's office did not respond. However, the senator did say, "I have a great deal of respect for Bill Ivey and believe he brings a high level of skill and integrity to the job of NEA chairman. While we may differ on some issues, I enjoy a good working relationship with Bill and I look forward to continuing that relationship."

Regardless of motivation, Thompson's vote to eliminate the NEA was a politically astute move. Ivey was safely ensconced in office, the amendment was going to be defeated by a huge margin anyway, and supporting the amendment would surely gratify his loyal conservative supporters. It was a win-win situation for the senator. For Ivey, it provided a valuable early lesson about his current milieu: Politics always trumps reason.

Some members of Congress have questioned whether the government should be in the position of deciding what is and isn't art. "Why can't the issue be left up to commercial forces?" they ask. Ivey counters that this is a misinterpretation of the Endowment's role.

"The Endowment is really about bringing the arts to the American people," he explains. "I'd love to have the support to ensure that young people in the next century are left with good access to their cultural heritage. Our early television heritage has already been lost. The marketplace didn't take care of it. Much of our radio heritage is gone. Many of the scores to the soundtracks of the great movies have been discarded. We don't depend on the marketplace to preserve literature--we have things called libraries. And if you extend the concept of libraries to other cultural needs, you can see the need for institutions to preserve their heritage and to make sure that it's accessible."

Critics on the left worry that such a middle-of-the-road approach will merely breed mediocrity. They consider Ivey's neutralizing, community-sharing tactics a political sidestep that endangers the agency's imperative for artistic "excellence." Writing in the Feb. 8 issue of The New Republic, Jeremy McCarter claims that art, like professional sports, is by nature elitist. "In his effort to placate critics, Ivey has broadened the definition of art to include, well, just about anything," McCarter writes. "Many in the arts community wonder, rightly, when popularity became a proxy for artistic merit." The reporter adds that Ivey has merged the concepts of excellence in the arts and access to them, as if "good art is art that serves the most people or renders the best service."

The chairman, however, insists that good art springs from an appreciation of our unique cultural heritage. His responsibility is to ensure that the NEA funds projects of quality. "Take the blues of South Chicago, and the cuisine of the Texas-Mexico border, and the country music of the Appalachian Mountains, and the musical theater of Manhattan. Then you have a sense of a country that really energizes itself by bringing diverse cultural traditions to one nation and then borrowing, accommodating, reworking, and remixing them in extraordinary ways to bring us new things. Once we figure that out, and the light bulb goes on, then I think policy, funding, and congressional support will follow with little difficulty."

Ivey will soon discover just how close he is to realizing his dream of congressional support "with little difficulty." This month he's busily meeting with legislators on Capitol Hill to explain the NEA's portion of the president's year 2000 budget request, which now includes $150 million for the Endowment--a $52 million escalation over the current funding level. Ivey says he's encouraged by the bipartisan support he's seen in both houses.

Following its near-death experience, the NEA seems to be entering an era of rebirth. Thanks to internal adjustments and the recent Supreme Court ruling, funding "offensive" art projects is no longer the issue. Today the biggest threat is one that bothered the agency's founders--that a closely scrutinized Endowment might become gun-shy, support only the safe and mainstream, and, in the end, actually squelch American artistry. Skeptics like McCarter, who question the benefit of rewarding mass appeal over talent and innovation, make a legitimate point.

Ivey has a fine line to tread here. That being the case, his past experience at the CMF should serve him well. Those who witnessed his delicate campaigns to win over the diverse creative, powerful, and strong-willed types in the country music industry are sure he can handle both Congress and the NEA's artistic beneficiaries just fine. Says CMF board member Denny, "Bill is very capable of dealing with people who are used to having their own way."

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