Recent NEA Grants Focus On Education, Non-Traditional Casting

News   Recent NEA Grants Focus On Education, Non-Traditional Casting
 
The organization may be between chairpersons, and down to a budget of $98 million, but the National Endowment for the Arts survives -- and continues to give. Last week the NEA awarded $14 million in grants to theatre, dance and other arts organizations for fiscal 1998 (Oct. 1, 1997-Sept. 30, 1998).

The organization may be between chairpersons, and down to a budget of $98 million, but the National Endowment for the Arts survives -- and continues to give. Last week the NEA awarded $14 million in grants to theatre, dance and other arts organizations for fiscal 1998 (Oct. 1, 1997-Sept. 30, 1998).

As reported by BackStage Online, Manhattan Theatre Club led the theatres in awards with $125,000, that money going to a theatre education program for NYC high school students. Other NY theatres receiving funds include City Lights Youth Theatre ($20,000), Women's Project & Productions ($18,000), Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre ($13,500) and Pan Asian Rep ($12,000). Theatre organizations getting the nod included NYU's publication, The Drama Review; Theatre Development Fund and the City Center 55th Street Theatre Foundation. In all, New Yrok companies took 98 of 437 awards.

Another big winner was The Non-Traditional Casting Project, which received $35,000 to implement Artist Files Online -- an online database of non-white and/or disabled performers. Sharon Jensen serves as executive director of NTCP, which publishes the bulletin, New Traditions.

Liz Ortiz-Mackes, manager of Artist Files Online, told Playbill On-Line (Dec. 23), "Our proprietary system has been working for a year and a half now. We have a working database and casting directors who have our software can access the files. Those who don't have computers can call us and we'll do a search. The NEA grant will go toward putting the service on the internet, I think by March 1998."

How does the service work? "We have it categorized by cultural identification which we get from the artist," said Ortiz-Mackes, "we don't make that decision. So it's broken down into three age groups: 19-and-under, 19-40 and 40 plus. It's also organized by region." The database consists of a photo, resume and contact information for the performer. Said Ortiz-Mackes, "We get no commissions of any kind. We're not a talent agency or a casting office; we're a free service to the artist. We hope to implement fees on the user end -- the casting community or production companies, who can access the internet site via password." To date, the files have been consulted for more than 1,800 theatre, film and television productions.

The $14 million in NEA grants were divided into two areas: Heritage & Preservation ($4.2 million) and Education & Access ($9.3 million), along with funding for Creative Writing Fellowships and other grants.

As reported by Back Stage, the largest NEA grant to a NYC organization -- $700,000 -- went to the Educational theBroadcasting Corp. for the development of arts documentaries.

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In other NEA news, since the resignation in October of Jane Alexander, the National Endowment for the Arts has been waiting for President Bill Clinton to appoint a successor.

On Dec. 18, the President nominated William Ivey, current executive director of the Country Music Foundation, based in Nashville, TN. A main contributor to "Creative America," a study on American cultural life, Ivey has taught at Vanderbilt University's Blair School Of Music and is a national trustee of NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. He's served on NEA panels since 1976.

In its story on the nomination, the New York Times reported that Ivey has virtually the same background as William Ferris, who was recently appointed head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Asked about the volatile nature of the NEA slot, Ivey, 53, told the press he expects to be asked his opinion of controversial grants in the Senate hearing process. "I know that it is a high-profile, important agency that has drawn all kinds of attention," he said.

Until Ivey is confirmed, (Ms.) Scott Shanklin-Peterson, senior deputy chairman, continues running day-to-day operations of the NEA, though the pro-forma acting chairman is Kathryn Higgins.

Tony Award-winning actress Alexander served as chairperson of the National Endowment For The Arts since Oct. 1993. Alexander had been hoping to resign a month earlier but felt compelled to stay while the NEA battled to renew its annual budget. She essentially won the fight, with the House and Senate agreeing on a $98 million budget, only $1.5 million less than the year before. For the story of the budget fight, please see the Playbill On-Line story, "House Provides Shelter For NEA, NY Gets Burned."

An unnamed associate of Alexander's told the Times, "She's done heroic work battling year after year to keep the Federal commitment to the arts alive. But I think it finally got to her. She's just exhausted." Alexander was the sixth chairman in the agency's 32-year history.

Say ƒder, in her official statement, "It was a great privilege to be front and center to the kaleidoscope of the arts in America... As our nation moves into the next millennium, I believe that the Endowment's role as a national voice for the arts will become even more vital."

From the U.S. President, who hand-picked Alexander for the post: "Jane Alexander has led the National Endowment For The Arts with courage, vigor, and imagination for four years. Hillary and I are grateful to her. She has served her country with the same standard of excellence she gives to her artistry." (Alexander won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Actress [Supporting or Featured, Dramatic] for her role in The Great White Hope.)

Alexander was playing the lead on Broadway in Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig when she got the nod from President Clinton -- an NEA supporter -- to take the reins of the financial disbursement organization. Her first year was spent visiting 200 cities and towns across America to connect the community to the arts.

Since that time, Alexander's efforts have helped keep the NEA alive, though the constant war with House Leader Newt Gingrich, and the ever decreasing budget size resulting from those fights, have taken their toll on both her and the organization. She had previously told the Times she fantasized about making a dramatic exit from her position: "It would be easy for me to stand up and shout, `I am an artist! How can you do this?' and let the agency go down in flames." Instead, she stayed with the NEA, and, for at least one more year, the NEA will stay put.

-- By David Lefkowitz

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