The Pew Charitable Trusts, the $4.7 billion foundation that put its weight behind causes like global warming, civic journalism and campaign finance reform when they were first emerging, has a new crusade: shaping a national cultural policy.
Over the next five years, the Pew plans to devote about 40 percent of its culture budget, some $50 million, toward getting policymakers to focus on issues like arts financing, intellectual property rights, zoning in historic areas and an arts curriculum for public schools. The effort will involve academic research, opinion polls and more media coverage, among other things.
"The next Presidential election should be the last one in which the parties are without a cultural policy plank in their platforms," said Stephen K. Urice, the Pew official who will direct the initiative. "But first they need to have smart academics, think tanks and data focusing on this, and that's where we're headed."
He added, "We're talking about developing an infrastructure for understanding the role of culture in America."
Some of the scholarly work the Pew intends to sponsor would try to establish the long-held but unproven belief in the arts world that cultural programs are valuable intrinsically and not simply as leisure activities, as many Americans see them, or as economic engines, a more recent view.
The Pew also plans to create an information center within a year, perhaps in Washington, to collect and publish data, conduct polls and organize conferences. It also plans to start a communications effort to support more media coverage of the arts, particularly on television. And it intends to work with orchestras, theaters, museums and other arts institutions to develop ways to measure their value to society.
"This is really about strengthening the arts organizations of this country," said Marion A. Godfrey, the director of the Pew's culture programs, which include the new initiative.
A few other foundations and universities have also started thinking about cultural policy, though on a smaller scale, and many in the arts world think it is time to grapple with other issues, like Federal funding for the arts and humanities. Mr. Urice said it was "overstating the case just a bit to say that this is like the period following the publication of 'Silent Spring,' " the 1962 book by Rachel Carson that galvanized the environmental movement.
Arts and culture, which make up between 3 percent and 6 percent of the gross domestic product and which, including everything from dance group tours to movie distribution, are the nation's second largest export after technology, also suffer from official indifference.
With few exceptions, the policymakers who venture into nearly every other corner of American life all but ignore culture. So do Federal officials. Although the Government knows, for example, that Americans spend $5.1 billion on television repair, make 504 billion local phone calls, eat on average 4.4 pounds of canned fish a year and have 12,400 compatriots who produce leather goods at an average wage of $10.98 an hour, it has no idea how many people attend dance performances, what violinists earn or how many art museums or community theaters exist across the nation.
As the program's first grant, the Pew has commissioned an 18-month study by the Rand Corporation that will map the locales, types and budgets, among other things, of the 18,000 nonprofit cultural institutions that file annually with the Internal Revenue Service. Later, the Pew hopes to expand this databank to include other cultural outlets, from unincorporated storefront community arts centers to giant entertainment corporations.
Whether the United States wants or needs an arts policy is a matter of debate, even among people in the arts. The director of one large museum physically retreated from a conversation at the mere mention of the words "cultural policy," Mr. Urice recalled.
"The term jars people," he said. "They think you are talking about centralized authority or regulation" -- not, as the Pew is suggesting as possibilities, discussions about grants to individual artists, about mandatory arts curriculum in schools or about laws that would prohibit the export of items that are considered part of the national heritage.
Some fear that foundations would divert their money to the study of culture, rather than to cultural programs themselves. And some believe that anything that has an influence on creative activity is un-American.
On the other side, there are people like Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art. In a new book called "250 Ways to Make America Better" published by George magazine, he makes the case for a national cultural policy. The United States, he writes, "must recognize that the arts are not just important to our society but a national responsibility, just as education, science, health and the environment are national responsibilities."
That view is gaining currency.
"Some time ago, a handful of us realized that there wasn't a solid research basis for advocacy," said James Allen Smith, a historian and the former executive director of the Howard Gilman Foundation. So in 1994, the Gilman, along with the Pew and the Ford Foundation banded together to form the Center for Arts and Culture in Washington, a policy center working to define the issues, themes and actions that affect the cultural sector.
Princeton, Northeastern, Harvard and a few other universities also are looking at cultural policy questions, as are scholars at other universities. Several nonprofit organizations, like the Rockefeller Foundation, are exploring cultural policy, too.
But the Pew, the Philadelphia-based behemoth started by the heirs of Sun Oil Company's founders, is taking the most comprehensive approach. "No foundation has gone as far as the Pew in starting a long-term strategic program," said Mr. Smith, now board president of the Center for Arts and Culture.
The Pew, which last year spent $213 million on educational, environmental, health and social policy and cultural and religious issues, has so far shared its plans with only a few likely supporters.
"They'll ask what are the right questions, what is the right information we need to gather," said Joan Shigekawa, an associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation's arts and humanities program. "It's really about preserving and enabling American creativity."
In one sense, the Pew's initiative is fallout from the culture wars that flared in the late 1980's, when conservatives began attacking the National Endowment for the Arts for financing artists whose work dealt with sexuality and other provocative themes. The endowment survived repeated attempts to kill it, but its annual budget, now $98 million, has been cut nearly in half from its peak.
At the Pew, Ms. Godfrey was disturbed not just by the attack but by the lack of an articulate rebuttal. "I've watched the arts community really struggle in its ability to make the case for itself," she said. "That was the backdrop I was stewing about."
Ms. Godfrey, who is the initiative's main proponent, said she hoped that a case for more Government money for the arts can be made with data the Pew will collect.
But Pew officials dispute any notion that the initiative is really just about getting more money for the endowment. "People saying that will miss the point," said Mr. Urice. "It may be we discover the arts simply need reliable, more consistent support or consolidation in some areas where there is oversupply. I wouldn't say more money is the solution; smarter money may be the answer instead. And there are many other forms of support -- political support, for example."
Still, the fragile financial health of cultural institutions is a matter of concern. While many arts institutions, including museums and opera companies, are thriving, others, including many symphony orchestras and dance companies, are not. Many are "drastically undercapitalized," Ms. Godfrey said.
Even those arts groups that are doing well are highly dependent on individual and corporate donations, which in turn rest on the continued strength of the stock market, now in its ninth bull year.
Part of the problem stems from the way Americans view culture. "I don't think the arts are seen as integral to human existence," Ms. Godfrey said.
The few participation studies that exist -- some are 10 years old or more -- seem to indicate that hard-core arts lovers comprise 10 to 12 percent of the population, but also that a large majority of people visit a museum, attend the theater or otherwise participate in the arts at least once a year. (One new, unpublished study of Philadelphians, financed by the Pew and the Heinz Endowment, found that 90 percent of those surveyed did so, and that 74 percent engaged in an arts activity three or more times a year.)
"The question is how to take participation and raise that to a level of concern," Mr. Urice said.
In the effort's early stages, however, the Pew has set its sights on a smaller target. "The primary audience of our initiative is really the arts community, policymakers and the media, to help people who think about the arts think about them in a more informed way," Ms. Godfrey said. "A big part of our effort will be the media part."
Already the financial sponsor of the National Arts Journalism Program at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, the Pew will look into supporting or creating a national arts news program in broadcasting. And it expects the results of its research and its polls, with precise subjects yet to be determined, to make news.
The Pew's goals with arts institutions may be the most difficult to accomplish: it wants to try to measure intangible results as an indicator of their value.
Arts groups usually depend on two other indicators of that, attendance and economic-benefits studies. But many people think those are at best mistaken and at worst traps: wrong-headed because neither is why arts institutions exist, dangerous because both could easily drop.
Instead, Ms. Godfrey said the foundation would center on documenting other benefits. For example, she said, "research shows that arts in schools help kids develop their thinking and learning skills, there is anecdotal evidence about the role of arts in community revitalization, and there is the impact of arts on individuals, the stories of how one person's life is changed."
Taken together, outsiders said, the Pew's plan could help frame a long-needed debate. "Their plan is very smartly put together," said Mr. Smith, the historian. "The question I have is whether they can make it as long a commitment as it needs. Will it disappear after five years? Will the board understand it? Will it draw in other foundations?"