GOP blasts NEA grants to 'Frisco mimes, accordion festival

A Republican lawmaker on Wednesday grilled the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts over grants to San Francisco mimes and an international accordion festival. 

“Those just kind of grants lend themselves to ridicule,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing. “These are a bit tough to justify … how can we justify these types of grants?”

Flake questioned NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman over a number of grants, including those to an international accordion festival and to the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Making grants like these “feeds the cynicism out there about everything we do,” Flake said. 

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Landesman responded that many of the programs that win NEA support could not exist without the help.

“The marketplace shouldn’t be the sole determinant of what is allowed to flourish,” Landesman said, adding that the renowned San Francisco Mime Troupe would likely not be able to survive solely on ticket sales.

Flake said he will do anything it takes to kill funding for the accordion festival, a statement that prompted Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) to say that Flake will be getting hate mail from Polish folk musicians. 

“Even during difficult budget times, we have to protect, preserve and grow the arts,” Serrano said. 

Flake also scrutinized NEA support for small university presses and university drama programs. He noted that some of the richest universities in the country, such as Yale and Columbia, receive NEA grants.

Landesman answered that the drama programs and small university presses are generally fiscally independent from the universities and their billion dollar endowments.

He said NEA is doing more to ensure that poor-quality programs do not receive funding. 

“There has been fear of death panels being conducted at the NEA,” he joked.

Landesman said that NEA needs more staff in order to conduct field visits to ensure quality arts programs.

The Obama administration is seeking to reduce NEA funding by 13 percent from 2010 funding, but the agency could see deeper cuts as the House tries to cut discretionary spending across the board.

Flake said he wants to see funding cut even further, below 2008 levels.

Appropriations subcommittee chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) emphasized he is a strong supporter of the NEA, especially for its rural outreach program. 

Simpson said after the hearing that the level of funding for NEA has not been figured out. The subcommittee is aiming to mark up a bill within weeks.