Clinton Makes a Grand Ole Pick to Head the Arts Endowment
By Henry Goldstein
Reprinted with permission from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, January 1998

The selection of William Ivey, executive director of the Country Music Foundation, to head the National Endowment for the Arts is a shrewd-even inspired-move by President Clinton. Indeed, the possibility of country music's top artists doing a concert on Capitol Hill to save the NEA from yetanother budget-pounding may be an idea whose time has come.

By turning over the N.E.A. to a man with strong ties to Nashville, Mr. Clinton has forced the yahoos in Congress--whose determination to cleanse the land of publicly supported dance, music, drama, and art knows no bounds--to knock off a person who appears to be one of their own, a symbol of good ol' boyism.

But Mr. Ivey, an ethnomusicologist by trade, is hardly a good ol' Southern boy. Born in Detroit and educated at the University of Michigan and Indiana University, he taught for a time at Brooklyn College and has served as chairman of the N.E.A.'s folk-arts panel. Mr. Ivey, it appears, is more an academic than a Bubba.

Since the days of Nancy Hanks, the endowment's first chairwoman, the N.E.A. has been an object of Congressional distrust and, sometimes, pure craziness. Its past directors have labored diligently to make the arts inclusive and accessible to all Americans. Yet to its critics in Congress, “;art” and “artists” are suspect. And even many friends of the Endowment will agree that a whiff of East Coast elitism hangs over its grants.

Mr. Ivey may do better than most of his predecessors. For one thing, he clearly understands the N.E.A., and he is an expert in a popular art form generally overlooked by scholars. Folk music has a venerable history, and it underlies much of popular music: country, blues, rock, even musical comedy.

My wife, a native Texan raised on Western swing, country blues, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams, describes the appointment as ``courageous'' and “unsinkable.” However, arts professionals have a decidedly more negative reaction. (The few I've heard range from the unpublishable to “Oh my God!” )

Those who question Mr. Ivey's commitment to the classical and fine arts, however, are stuck with a subtle problem: To object too strenuously to his appointment is to risk the charge of elitism. And the nomination of a folklorist with 26 years of talkin' Southern at the Country Music Foundation also sticks it to Congress.

President Clinton's appointment reminds effete Easterners, myself included, that the political gravity of America has shifted southward and westward. Country music is demographically correct, and only at his or her peril will even the most recalcitrant member of Congress appear to oppose a man whose full-time job has been to legitimize country music as a uniquely American art form.

One can hope that Mr. Ivey's journey to confirmation will go smoothly. But the fight to preserve the endowment will go on, and his selection as chairman could mean that the battle to gut the agency will have to be waged more adroitly by its opponents. In the past, the us-and-them scenario-the good, plain folks in Congress versus Eastern snobbism-made for good press in the hinterlands. This nomination undercuts that mindset.

A minority in Congress is still very much determined to eliminate the N.E.A. , and the prospects for its survival remain uncertain. The selection of William Ivey may stave off the worst for a time. The President is betting that country music is attack-proof, and I do see interesting possibilities in the President's choice. 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'' may now be a good bet for a grant.

Henry Goldstein, president of the Oram Group, a fund-raising consulting company in New York, is a regular contributor to these pages. Click here to send an email.