ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now, stimulus money and scrutiny. There's one federal agency that's handing out stimulus money that has lots of experience in doling out money under very tight scrutiny, the National Endowment for the Arts.
NPR's Elizabeth Blair has been reporting on the NEA and how it's learned very well how to spend taxpayers' money under the watchful eye of the government. Hi.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: You should tick off some of the NEA's greatest hits in terms of pressure that they experience: the Robert Mapplethorpe photos, for example. There are a lot of…
BLAIR: Andrea Carrano.
SIEGEL: A lot of public scrutiny, a lot of criticism. What did the NEA learn from the days when people criticized the sorts of things it was funding?
BLAIR: Well, it was - Bill Ivey, he was the chair of the NEA in 1998. As he put it, it was a very uncomfortable time at the NEA, but what came out of it is that they really fine-tuned their grant-making process.
They crossed every T, dotted every I to make sure that if anyone questioned what they were doing, they had backup information to show them.
SIEGEL: But did that mean we will avoid controversy? We won't fund anything that might bring down criticism?
BLAIR: Well, that's always the question. I mean, I think the NEA has really stayed focused to try not to give, for example, they don't give general operating grants anymore because they want to have a little bit more control over the…
SIEGEL: Control over the work that's actually produced with their funds.
BLAIR: Yeah. That's right. Yeah.
SIEGEL: Well, you know, I was told earlier today that in the stimulus money, a state can't use it, for example, to fund a spa. In fact, it can't build a swimming pool with it. So in terms of what the NEA is doing with its money, what is it using its money for?
BLAIR: Right, but they might be able to fund a dramateur(ph), for example. Well, first, I want to tell you that the NEA came out with its guidelines fairly quickly for the stimulus package. Within two weeks of President Obama's announcement, they had their guidelines posted, they - and they're pretty strict guidelines.
For example, only groups that have received NEA funding in the last four years can get grants. They've made it very clear this is about preserving jobs, and they've limited the number, the grant amounts, to $25,000 or $50,000. And all this is so that they can streamline the process and get the money out quickly. The kinds of jobs it might fund, a part-time marketing assistant at a theater in Atlanta, a ballet master in Boston. There's one museum I talked to in Albany that said they want to digitize their collection. So it's salaries but also artist fees.
SIEGEL: But my marimba symphony that I want to get funded for the first time as a new applicant?
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLAIR: Start writing your grant.
SIEGEL: I thought you were going to tell me to forget about it. What kinds of jobs - well, will there be new works produced with this money, in that case, or will it simply be maintaining everything that's been funded before?
BLAIR: I don't think it's maintaining everything that's been funded before because so many theaters and so many museums are having such problems that they've laid off staff, I mean months ago. So I don't think there's really much we can do about…
SIEGEL: That would be expecting too much at this point.
BLAIR: Yes, yes, and they don't want organizations to create new projects in order to get this money. They want to preserve jobs. They want jobs that they had budgeted for but no longer can afford, let's save those jobs.
SIEGEL: Okay. Elizabeth, thank you very much.
BLAIR: Thank you.
SIEGEL: NPR's Elizabeth Blair on the stimulating tactics of the National Endowment for the Arts.