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NEA Releases Strict Rules For Arts Stimulus Grants

When it comes to passing out economic stimulus funds, President Obama has stressed that his administration will be exercising careful oversight.

One agency that will be giving away some of those funds — the National Endowment for the Arts — knows a little something about operating under watchful governmental eyes.

In the late '90s, some members of Congress objected to the fact that artwork they deemed offensive had been funded by the NEA. Bill Ivey, then the endowment's chairman, remembers the firestorm that resulted.

"There was a time — certainly in '98 and '99 — in which there were staff members assigned within congressional offices to basically review everything the NEA did on a daily basis. ... There were congressional observers looking over the agency's shoulder."

Lessons from that scrutiny will come in handy as the NEA doles out the $50 million it received as part of the stimulus package Congress passed last month. It took the NEA less than two weeks to get strict grant-making guidelines posted on the agency's Web site.

One of those guidelines states that only groups that have received NEA grants in the past four years will be eligible for money from the stimulus package. Patrice Powell, the NEA's acting chairwoman, says the provision will ensure that applicants have been "vetted to some degree."

The NEA has also made it clear that job preservation should be the primary goal for groups applying for grants. That's a guideline arts managers are more than willing to follow.

The Synchronicity Performance Group in Atlanta wants to turn its part-time marketing-assistant post into a full-time position; the Albany Institute of History and Art wants to preserve a job it calls "digitization director." The Boston Ballet plans to ask for money to pay one of its ballet masters.

Another restriction: For most nonprofits, grants will be made only in the amounts of $25,000 and $50,000. The NEA set these two grant amounts to streamline the process and get the money out faster.

But that's one grant protocol that poses a challenge for grant writers. They never want to ask for too little — arts groups are constantly cash-strapped.

Ask for too much, though, and they might price themselves out of the competition and get nothing at all. It can be a tricky calculus.

"There are so many other organizations in the country that are applying for not a very large pot of funds," says Rachel Yurman, a Boston Ballet fundraiser. "You never want to ask for too much, because it's all or nothing."

But Ivey defends the rules. He sees them as a product of the intense scrutiny the NEA underwent in the late '90s.

"Out of that process came a very precise and very careful approach to disbursing money, one that will stand up to any scrutiny that comes along," he says.

The NEA grant application deadline for state and regional arts agencies is this Friday. Other nonprofit arts groups have until April 2.

The agency expects hundreds of applications, from theater and dance groups, orchestras, museums and media companies — including NPR.

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.