Arts Chief Walks a Tightrope

NEA chairman John Frohnmayer has been operating in a storm over funding of the arts. INTERVIEW

ARTS czar and baritone John Frohnmayer has come a long way since he sang Billy Bigelow's lines in a high school production of ``Carousel'': ``When you walk through a storm, keep your head up high, and don't be afraid of the dark ... Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain...'' the hero of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical sings in ``You'll Never Walk Alone.'' Mr. Frohnmayer has been walking through a storm for nearly a year now, since he became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) last September. There's been plenty of wind (some of it hot) and plenty of hard rain falling on the arts in this savage storm over federal funding for the arts. The issue raises questions about First Amendment rights versus restrictions on art that some view as offensive or obscene.

And there's been plenty of dark to walk through in the last year, so much that the endowment is now in danger of not just being cut back or subject to restrictive language but, in the more bloodless governmental language, ``defunded,'' as in no funds, no agency. And no five-year reauthorization of the NEA in its 25th year.

The long-awaited congressional floor fight over the fate of the NEA is now set for September, after Congress's summer recess.

Frohnmayer, a tall (6'2''), lean guy with hazel eyes and an earnest smile, has seen the NEA problems mount like thunderheads. Since May, when reauthorization hearings were concluded, the most serious question has gone from ``Can the Endowment be reauthorized without restrictive language on grants?'' to ``Can the NEA be saved?''

Frohnmayer says, ``The worst case scenario is, we don't get reauthorized, and then we're gone... There are certainly people in Congress who advocate that, like [Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher.''

He ticks off a list of NEA's other visceral opponents: Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of N.C., and well-organized groups such as the American Family Association, Rev. Pat Robertson's ``700 Club,'' and Phyllis Schafly's Eagle Forum.

John Frohnmayer has been an embattled government agency head almost from the day he stepped into his tower office at NEA headquarters, in the castle-like Old Post Office building here, where I recently interviewed him. ``On almost every First Amendment issue you feel a crunch.

``The First Amendment is such an important part of what we are as Americans, that it has been litigated probably more than most sections of the Bill of Rights ...''

Frohnmayer is a former Oregon lawyer who specialized in First Amendment issues, an avid arts supporter and collector who was chairman of the Oregon Arts Commission. A Stanford graduate, he received his law degree from the University of Oregon, studied at Union Theological Seminary, and received an M.A in Christian ethics from the University of Chicago.

His confirmation last year followed a bruising floor fight in Congress over an NEA appropriation that was held hostage by Senator Helms with an amendment that became law this year, restricting funding for any art deemed obscene.

The debate over the fate of the NEA has included suggested plans to shrink-wrap the agency: like turning over 60 percent of its budget to the state arts agencies. Frohnmayer himself came out as The Enforcer for this year's restrictive langauge that requires grant recipients to pledge they will not create anything obscene. As a lawyer and NEA chairman, he feels that's his legal responsibility, he says.

His best education for the NEA's political battles over the last year might have been Machiavelli's primer on intrigue, ``The Prince.'' There appears to be much more politics than art involved during this election year.

Not true, say Frohnmayer. ``Politics [including art politics] deals with perceptions more than realities. The arts have absolutely been drubbed in the battle of perceptions. That has to be true when an agency that has an exemplary record of 85,000 grants with perhaps 20 of them being questionable over 25 years getting branded as the nation's pornographer.''

Frohnmeyer got his first taste of the bitterness of the battle last November when he withdrew an NEA grant from a Manhattan gallery for an AIDS art show, calling it ``political art,'' because its catalog included offensive remarks about three public figures who are anti-gay: Helms, Roman Catholic Cardinal John O'Connor of New York City, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of Calif. It raised such a firestorm that the grant was later reinstated.

Even such a seasoned lawyer as Frohnmayer has to be careful dealing with the velvet daggers of Washington political infighting.

He ``has been a harrassed chairman,'' says Anne Murphy, executive director of the American Arts Alliance, an arts advocate. ``You come to Washington at a very difficult time, and have your own code of ethics and operations. He didn't have time to learn the ropes.''

Increasing numbers of artists or arts groups are refusing NEA grants on First Amendment grounds, from Joseph Papp of New York's Public Theater to the New School for Social Research, which is actually suing the NEA.

Debate riddles Frohnmayer's decision not to fund controversial performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller.

``It's clear to me,'' says Frohnmayer, ``that because of the intensity with which feelings are held in the area of the arts, that I'm not going to please all of the people all of the time.

``The issues here are ... really fundamental issues of the promotion of creativity and allowing our society to determine truth by the vigorous clash of ideas. I think that those issues are so critical as to what we are as Americans, that we must convince those congressmen who don't think this is the important issue that it is.''

Rep. Sid Yates (D) of Illinois, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, was already convinced. His committee has just budgeted $180 million for the NEA, $5 million higher than the administration asked for.

As Chairman Frohnmayer told the Independent Commission reviewing the NEA grant-making procedures this week, ``The arts endowment charge is to bring quality arts to the American people and make them accessible. The endowment is a bridge between the arts and the people. And it has to have two-way traffic.''

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