Arts Agency Still in the Hot Seat

The National Endowment for the Arts struggles to reclaim its stature and quiet critics

THE National Endowment for the Arts has been a lodestone for controversy during the last four years. Now, as NEA officials brace for reauthorization hearings in the House of Representatives next month, they take some reassurance from President Clinton's nomination of actress Jane Alexander to head the agency.

But the endowment's detractors have shown no sign of easing their efforts to restrict or even abolish the agency. The endowment's challenge in the coming months will be to dust off its image and redefine what role the federal government should play in the arts.

In its defense, NEA supporters say that even with its meager budget of $174 million, the endowment managed to subsidize more than 4,000 artists and cultural organizations last year, acting as a vital catalyst for private investment. Attacks from the right

Opponents of the NEA argue, however, that because private gifts to the arts far outstripped the amount of endowment grants last year, federal expenditures are superfluous. They add that through its indirect support of controversial artists like Andres Serrano and the late Robert Mapplethorpe, the endowment contributes to what Rep. Robert Dornan (R) of California calls "the nihilistic cancer eating away at our country."

Anne-Imelda Radice, the former chairwoman of the endowment under President Bush, says that when the controversy first broke in 1989, the NEA already suffered from "the perception that it was more responsive to individual art forms than it was to taxpayers. If there's a sense on Capitol Hill that you're not responding to Congress, you've got a big problem."

Ms. Radice says that the NEA controversy generated more letters to Congress than the entire savings and loan scandal. She says most of the letters expressed a concern "that the NEA was not making judgments based on quality; that art which was trendy and shocking was somehow getting more consideration."

Radice blames this widespread sentiment on the failure of her predecessor, John Frohnmayer, to address congressional concerns.

By all accounts, the virulent criticism caught Mr. Frohnmayer, and the endowment, flat-footed.

"We were really unprepared for the attack we received," says A.B. Spellman, deputy director of the endowment. "We hadn't experienced that before. People had always wanted to be associated with us ... we were a popular institution."

The attacks, which eventually cost Frohnmayer his job, eroded the endowment's credibility.

Conservatives shunned the agency completely, moderates and liberals held it in suspicion, and many arts advocates criticized it for caving in to the religious right.

While galvanized by the ordeal, endowment officials remain bewildered by the nature of the controversy.

"It's depressing to see an issue so complex dominated by irrelevance," Mr. Spellman says. "Sometimes I wonder who they're talking about. There's so much in this debate that doesn't have anything to do with what [we] do everyday."

Congressional sources say that because the issue has provoked such a ground swell of indignation among constituents, members of Congress have been able to raise money by portraying themselves as crusaders against an agency that conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan once called "the upholstered playpen of the arts-and-crafts auxiliary of the liberal establishment." Nobody in Washington expects the rancor to fade anytime soon. `Populist' agency

But Spellman, a 20-year veteran of the endowment, says that the NEA is a much more populist agency than many people realize. He points out that nearly one-third of endowment funds go to state arts councils, many of which "exist to serve the underserved" in rural or urban areas. "The presence of these organizations actually makes property values go up and anchors neighborhoods," he says. "I don't think anything reaches the same range of communities as the arts."

Rep. Sidney Yates (D) of Illinois, a longtime arts advocate, notes that in its 25-year history, the NEA has awarded nearly 100,000 grants. The controversial works for which the endowment has been condemned, he says, are so few in number that "you can count them all on the fingers of two hands. Those who concentrate on the endowment's support of visual art have no idea what the endowment really does," he says. "The endowment is dance troupes, symphonies, ballet, and arts education."

NEA foes, however, continue to label the endowment as a purveyor of pornography. Early this week, Rep. Philip Crane (R) of Illinois invited the Christian Action Network to bring easels into his Capitol Hill office and mount photocopied images from a current exhibition of "abject art" at the Whitney Museum in New York. Included was a three-foot-high mound of synthetic excrement and a depiction of Jesus as a naked woman.

Although the exhibition was funded privately and received no consideration from the NEA, Representative Crane argues that prior endowment grants to the Whitney Museum constitute blanket approval of anything the museum chooses to exhibit. "The message we're sending is, `Don't use involuntary tax money to promote this kind of filth,' " he says.

In the face of such vehement opposition, arts supporters say, many in Congress have ducked the fight. "No one really wants to stand up and say the arts are important in this country," says Peter Zeisler, executive director of the Theater Communications Group. "There's an election coming up, and everyone's afraid of being branded by the right. I think it's deplorable."

The only indication of President Clinton's arts agenda so far is his nomination of Ms. Alexander, a theater and film veteran currently starring in the Broadway play "The Sisters Rosensweig." The choice prompted praise from NEA supporters.

"This is the first time in the history of the endowment that an artist has headed it," Mr. Zeisler says. "Jane can have a healing effect because she's not a politician. She takes [the endowment] out of the political arena."

A congressional source says that if confirmed, Ms. Alexander's first priority should be to change the widely held opinion on Capitol Hill that the NEA is a "huge problem." MIT conference

In June, arts adherents both inside and outside government gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to brainstorm about the future of federal arts funding. Speaking at the conference, journalist and author Robert Hughes defended the NEA's method of issuing grants based on the conclusions of a peer panel.

"There is a huge difference between commissioning a work of art and sponsoring a talent," he told the audience. "The NEA essentially puts a bet on talent at arm's length and then gets out of the way." Under a content restriction, he said, art would have to be "incapable of offending anybody, no matter what their threshold of offense might actually be."

Hughes also argued that a democracy should be able to "subsidize a forum, an agora, a marketplace of ideas and images without specifying in advance what should be displayed in it."

Jim Fitzpatrick, a constitutional-law specialist, noted that the Constitution forbids the federal government from determining whether or not ideas are acceptable. "If once in a while you have a work of art that slips through the qualifying system at the NEA, that basically is the price you pay for a free society," he says. "The alternative simply is unworkable and unacceptable."

But conservatives contend that a cheaper, less morally ambiguous solution would be to relegate all controversial art to the whims of the free market.

Speaking in defense of his 1991 amendment to restrict the content of NEA-funded art, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina said, "These people with their minds in the gutter can do whatever they want with their own money. There is a clear difference between censorship and sponsorship."

Senator Helms's remarks echo the view of some moderates that the federal government should not support any art that contradicts the mainstream values they believe a majority of Americans share.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, speaking at the MIT conference, argued that such questions of obscenity fall under the jurisdiction of the courts rather than the Congress. "Sometimes art shocks our sensibilities," he said. "It is supposed to." Senator Kennedy said that the arguments for content restriction are little more than a convenient ploy by those "who, if the truth be known, oppose any federal aid to the arts."

Spellman says that without federal money, private arts support would dwindle for all but the most established arts organizations.

"Private patrons still look to the NEA for certification - it's the only place where there is competitive evaluation," he says. Abolition of the agency, he adds, would result in a flood of money to the artists and arts groups with big names, entities that rely the least on NEA support. "Art has always been funded by patrons. You can't expect art to pay for itself," Zeisler says.

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