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Downsizing the Arts

Thirty-three years ago, a group of artists, administrators, and members of Congress gathered around President Johnson at the White House as he signed legislation establishing the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). That day culminated more than a century of debate over the proper role of the national government in the encouragement of the arts. The debate continues today. Below, Maxine C. Jefferson, director of human resources, talks about the NEA’s challenge of doing more with less after a major reduction in funding.

What is the current status of NEA funding?
In the last appropriations bill for fiscal year 1998, the NEA was funded at a level of $98 million. While this amount didn’t meet the President’s request level of $136 million, Congress did authorize a level of funding that allowed NEA’s current work to continue. For fiscal year 1999, the President’s budget request for the NEA is again at $136 million. We’re hopeful that our funding level will be increased.

Where have most staffing cuts occurred—and why?

Staffing cuts occurred all across the agency in both program and administrative functions. But I would have to say most of the position cuts occurred on the program side of the agency because that’s where the agency was more heavily staffed. The administrative area did lose positions, but to a lesser extent, because in most instances they were already functioning with minimal staff.

What has been HR’s focus during the recent cutbacks?
Our focus was on providing support to management and employees to make it as easy as possible to adjust to our new work environment. My staff and I wanted to make sure we provided everyone with timely and quality personnel advice, guidance and service. For example, we held briefings in April and in July 1995, which addressed performance appraisals, tenure, bumping rights, severance pay, discontinued service retirement and benefits. We provided individual counseling as well.

How has HR been impacted—in terms of its own department and in its role and functions?
Due to apprehension and anxiety, many NEA employees sought outside employment opportunities prior to the official announcement of any layoffs. Quite a few of them were successful in their search, including one of our HR staff members. Senior management realized our office would need every remaining HR employee we had if we were to successfully administer the impending reduction-in-force.

What new challenges has HR faced in light of these financial and staffing cuts?
As an HR office for an independent, small agency, we have responsibility for policy and operations. We not only have to take care of all the day-to-day human resources activities, but we must also respond to all the personnel policy matters coming to us from the government-wide Office of Personnel Management. Juggling operations and policy work is often overwhelming with reduced staff.

Can you describe exactly how the NEA has been reinvented?
Prior to the budget cuts, the Endowment had a budget of $162 million, 17 disciplines and field programs and 273 full-time employees. Annually, we would receive between 16,000 and 17,000 grant applications and approve approximately 3,700 of them. Arts organizations were eligible to submit several applications per year and direct support was available for individual artists in all of the disciplines.

After the budget cuts, our agency budget dropped to $98 million and we now have a limit of 156 full-time employees. We receive approximately 3,000 grant applications per year, and last year, we approved approximately 1,050 grants. Groups can now only submit one application per year, unless they’re a part of a consortium, for specific project support. Direct support to individuals is available only in three specific instances: Literature, American Jazz Masters and National Heritage Fellowships in the Folk and Traditional Arts.

What creative strategies has HR undertaken to do more with less?
The Office of Human Resources has focused on developing and training its current staff to maximize their skills and knowledge. We ensure that staff is adequately cross-trained to prevent major gaps in work and performance. We’ve also emphasized the need for cooperation and teamwork in all functional activities.

What are the most important lessons you have learned through the downsizing?
First and foremost, there can never be too much communication. The more information shared with senior management, the better their understanding and decision-making. When supervisors are more knowledgeable, they can help their employees deal with the uncertainty of change.

Secondly, human resources must always ensure that critical personnel information, such as job descriptions, service dates and performance ratings, is readily accessible, current and accurate.

Lastly, it’s important to keep a record of separated employees and continue to provide employment information and outplacement assistance to them. In addition to having a positive impact on morale, job assistance to separated employees shortens the time of unemployment compensation and reduces the financial burden on the agency.

What do you think is the most common misperception about the NEA’s mission?
Our official mission is to foster the excellence, diversity and vitality of the arts in the United States, and to broaden public access to the arts. Therefore, I believe the most common misperception about the NEA is that we are an elitist organization that gives preferential attention to funding programs and activities originating in large states such as New York and California. This misperception is quite unfortunate because it obscures the true focus of our agency activities. The NEA awards grants for projects that reach millions of Americans nationwide.

Where in Corporate America has the NEA found support?
The NEA’s most consistent success in finding funding partners has been for agency-supported projects. The Coca-Cola Company, Chase Manhattan, Nissan Motors, Binney & Smith, Atlantic Richfield Co., Borders Books, Microsoft and AT&T Corp. have all contributed to the support of specific projects.

How do you see the NEA catapulting into the next millennium?
Despite the cutbacks, the Arts Endowment is still the largest single source of national leadership and support for the nonprofit arts in the United States. The NEA is America’s federal arts agency. We will use our unique position to address arts issues at the national level, and internationally as well. Already, we’re giving emphasis to new leadership and millennium projects of national scope to encourage innovative partnerships. It’s also part of our role to preserve America’s living cultural heritage.

Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp. 27-28.