WASHINGTON -- Alec Baldwin visited the nation's capital on Monday to press for increased federal funding for the arts after government dollars were cut last year, saying such funding ensures the public affordable access to theater, dance and music.
The actor for NBC's "30 Rock" told The Associated Press he was returning to Congress to press for arts funding after the culture wars of the 1990s first drew him into the same debate about 20 years ago. Part of his passion, he said, was protecting freedom of expression through the arts, as well as arts education.
Baldwin, 54, said his own industry of TV and film is often like the "potato chip business – it's junk food." For more sophisticated arts, he said he has to go out and find music, theater or dance programs just like anyone else. But for him, a night out for culture isn't an issue.
"There are tremendous parts of the country right now where there's a need for federal funding for the arts in order to bring that to people on a level that they can afford," he said. "We still have a cultural heritage to protect in this country. This is what's going to enrich people's lives."
Baldwin said the nation has fallen far short of its high of about $176 million in arts funding in 1992. When accounting for inflation since then, he argues, the U.S. should be spending about $100 million more on the arts than it is.
For 2012, the arts endowment received about $147 million – a $22 million cut since 2010.
"If I had any influence, I'd want the (National Endowment for the Arts) to have a budget of a billion dollars," Baldwin said. "We spend too much money on war in this country."
Baldwin was to deliver an arts policy lecture Monday night at the Kennedy Center to a sold-out audience, and he also was taking his case to the National Press Club before planning to head to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to boost arts funding.
Pianist and singer Ben Folds, 45, who is also a judge on NBC's "The Sing-Off," planned to join Baldwin and hundreds of arts advocates from across the country in lobbying Congress.
Folds said he hears from parents and students while he's traveling about how highly they value having band or music classes in school.
"I'm just a walking example of someone who would be maybe bussing tables right now at best if it wasn't for my arts education," Folds told AP, recalling his second and third-grade years of singing and learning to read music while playing a simple recorder.
Those kinds of arts programs that emphasize creativity and help build problem-solving skills have been cut back as standardized tests emphasized achievement in reading, math and science, he said.
Robert Lynch, president of the lobbying group Americans for the Arts, said winning increased funding for 2013 will be challenging but not impossible.
President Barack Obama's budget has called for an $8 million increase after cutbacks in recent years.
Funding the arts, meanwhile, is shaping up as one more election-year issue.
Likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has said he would eliminate funding for PBS and the arts endowment to help balance the federal budget.
Lynch said he doubts Republicans would go that far. Romney was supportive of arts funding as governor of Massachusetts and understood how the arts cam contribute to economic growth with jobs and by generating tax dollars, Lynch said.
"I just believe that all of the candidates out there are rational people," he said.
Romney has said private funding should fill the void of federal dollars. One way would be adding commercials to public broadcast stations, he has said.
Lynch said arts funding provides seed money to help draw private support and donations to symphonies, theater companies and performing arts centers across the country.
With about 110,000 nonprofit arts organizations nationwide and 40,000 federal and state arts grants given out each year, he said federal funding is part of the infrastructure of the arts industry. Arts-related business also sends tax money back to government coffers, he said.