Excerpt From `Leaving Town Alive'

In July of 1989, John Frohnmayer made his first contact, via letter, with Sen. Jesse Helms. He wrote that he wanted to convince Helms and others that, if confirmed by the Senate, he would sensitively administer the Endowment. He also expressed hope that a consensus could be reached in the controversy over public funding for the arts. Reflecting on that communique, he writes:

THOSE were the days in which I thought I could negotiate anything if people of goodwill simply got together, discussed the issues, and decided on the course that would most benefit the country. Some of my public statements to the media, issued from the safe harbor of my desk in Portland, reflect that optimism: "The last thing I want to be is a censor. That's not the job I'm undertaking when I'm chairman of the National Endowment. But there is a continuum here, I think. On one end is absolute freedom and on the other is what I would call the public trust - when you're using public dollars. We have to be able to find where the balance is on that continuum."

I didn't know what I was talking about. The continuum, if there is one, runs between absolute freedom at one end and no freedom at the other. How one strikes "the public trust" on that continuum eludes me to this day. Yes, it is public money, and yes, it is the politician's lot to be sensitive to his or her constituents, but neither of those realities is the least bit helpful in deciding what art is or is not to be funded. At best, "the public trust" is fulfilled by conscientious administrators who set u p responsible procedures to choose the best art available.

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