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A salesman for the arts

DON'T SAY "Robert Mapplethorpe" or "culture wars" to Dana Gioia, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He is tired of talking about the controversies of a past century. Instead Gioia recites lines from Shakespeare's "As You Like It":


"Sweet are the uses of adversity, / Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, / Wears yet a precious jewel in his head."

Gioia will talk about working at General Foods for years because he wanted a career that would not interfere with his poetry writing. And, most important for the country, Gioia has a great deal to say about the future of public funding for the arts.

It is cleansing conversation that plucks public debate about the arts out of the political gutter and reminds the public that for a young country, America is culturally loaded -- from jazz to film to modern dance. He points out that it was Nancy Hanks, the endowment's chair during the Nixon administration, who spread the money that helped build dance companies, opera companies, and museums. As Gioia sees it, there is no fight: Most people want the arts in their communities and schools. The only real issues are logistical.

The endowment is in part handling logistics with its Shakespeare in American Communities program. It's the country's largest tour of Shakespeare's plays. It will rely on some 200 partners, including 28 theater companies, and is expected to reach more than 1 million high school students. The endowment will also use $1 million in Department of Defense spending to bring the plays to military bases. Forming partnerships and spending other people's money should create new audiences and patrons.

President Bush has jumped aboard. His budget request for next year includes $140 million for the endowment, an $18 million increase. Much of this would pay for a new program, American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius, which would "bring great American works" to communities, military bases, and schools. The program will be a true success if it can help rebuild the cultural ruins found in many public schools.

Gioia should also take up the role of advocate, pointing out that the promising national news is dulled by the stain of rampant state funding cuts. In 2003, states spent $355 million on the arts, far more than the national endowment. This year the states' total was only $272 million. Massachusetts is among the losers: In 2003, the Commonwealth suffered a 62 percent cut in arts funding, from $19 million to $7.3 million. And in his latest budget request, Governor Romney has asked for level funding.

Gioia must ride two horses: promoting the arts and promoting arts funding.

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