WASHINGTON -- Kevin Spacey performed some impromptu "street theater" Tuesday to ask Congress for continued funding of the National Endowment for the Arts amid calls for deep budget cuts.
Spacey was supposed to testify in the House during a hearing that was canceled at the last minute for budget negotiations to avoid a government shutdown. Instead, he performed a version of his testimony for arts supporters.
"Let's pretend," he said, introducing himself to a packed crowd that included a few lawmakers before reading his prepared testimony.
The Academy Award-winning actor said a theater workshop led by the great actor Jack Lemmon when Spacey was 13 gave him a big boost into theater. When it came time to perform a scene for Lemmon, Spacey spoke in a shaky voice with little self-esteem.
"Now that was a touch of terrific," Lemmon told Spacey.
"He saw something in me – a potential – that even I hadn't recognized," Spacey said. "That moment shaped me, and it shaped my life."
Spacey – who won Oscars for his roles in "American Beauty" and "The Usual Suspects" and was executive producer of last year's "The Social Network" – said he's worried fewer kids will have opportunities in the arts. Funding cuts in the 1990s and similar notions now threaten the grants provided by the arts endowment for local theaters and arts groups, he said.
"To me, it is important just to absolutely embrace arts and culture and the creative industries and what they bring to our nation," Spacey told The Associated Press. "It is the single greatest export we exchange around the world."
Alec Baldwin and Hill Harper of TV's "CSI: NY," who was a law school friend of President Barack Obama, spoke later on Capitol Hill, also urging lawmakers to shield the arts from drastic cuts.
House Republicans have passed a $40 million cut this year to the relatively small $168 million annual budget of the arts endowment, though the cut is subject to Senate negotiations. Others want to cut off funding entirely in 2012, including Sarah Palin, who recently called such government spending "frivolous."
Obama's proposed budget for 2012 calls for a $22 million reduction due to pressure to cut spending.
Several state arts agencies also are facing severe cuts. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback called for eliminating the state arts commission but met resistance in the state Senate. Cuts have been proposed in Washington state and New Hampshire as well.
Grants from arts agencies are used as leverage to draw donations from corporations and philanthropists for substantial projects. Spacey said an NEA grant is a "stamp of approval" for small arts groups.
Robert Lynch, president of the lobbying group Americans for the Arts, said many new lawmakers in a rush to cut budgets fail to see the jobs and economic boost that arts organizations provide as small businesses. The $166 billion nonprofit arts sector includes 5.7 million jobs and generates nearly $30 billion in tax revenue, he said.
"Without a lot of time to understand what this sector means and how it can contribute, it's lumped along with everything else that can be cut to make a smaller government," Lynch said, adding that many arts supporters have left Congress. Still, he said, "I'm one of the last optimists in Washington."
The arts group plans to hold its first-ever White House briefing Tuesday to press for support from Obama's staff.
Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, chairman of the House subcommittee that funds the arts, told supporters he believes a majority in Congress supports preserving funding. Still, some believe the government simply shouldn't fund the arts at all.
Democratic Rep. James Moran of Virginia said the government is buying fighter jets that each cost as much as the annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. The F-22 costs $412 million each, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs $126 million each. The government is buying hundreds of them.
"We are not a poor country. We are a wealthy country, but our real power comes from the power of our ideas," he said "This is not about saving money. This is ideological."
Spacey also has publicly opposed a recently announced 30 percent cut to arts funding in Britain, where he serves as artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre. He said the cuts taking full effect by 2015 would devastate hundreds of arts groups.
The British government should change its tax laws, Spacey said, and use the U.S. model of providing tax breaks for charitable donations to help fill the gap left by cuts in public funding.