Continuing Coverage: NEA 1990-94
From Village Voice column Scene & Heard
N.E. Eight Ball, June 26, 1990
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, NEA-baiter and media-hound, tipped his philistine hand last month on the May 5 edition of the NBC Nightly News. It was in the midst of another incisive look at the arts-agency funding flap that managed to exclude both the First Amendment and the Supreme Court's obscenity-defining Miller decision. Commentator Garrick Utley sought higher authority in Jesse Helms, Pat Robertson, and then Rohrabacher, who offered an art history show-and-tell. Holding up photos of Lynda Benglis's Quartered Meteor and Robert Smithson's Closed Mirror Square from the Whitney's partly NEA-funded (and highly praised) spring show, "The New Sculpture 1965-75: Between Geometry and Gesture," the savant described Smithson's work as "a big pile of sand with a flat top. It's nonsense. A monkey could do this."
NEA chair and art-community basher John Frohnmayer was an even more depressing case. "If there's an arts constituency, where are they?" he whined to Utley. He asked the same question at his lackluster lecture at NYU on May 23. Like so many Washingtonians, Frohnmayer prefers supportive letters over people who actually speak out-especially those whose lips read "racism"' or "homophobia." He recently told the Senate that he can't "defend" Wojnarowicz, Mapplethorpe, and Serrano. And now he's constructing a scenario in which responsibility for the possible dismantling of the NEA shifts from the agency's chair and his Bush-buddy to artists and their friends. That's right, blame the victims.
During the first week of June, pro-NEA activity by the arts community reached a feverish pitch. (It may be too little, too late, but it should not be compared with the evangelical right's 10 years of tax-exempt organizing.) Artists and theater workers demonstrated outside the Tony Awards ceremony on June 3, while colleagues including Ron Silver worked the TV audience from inside. Brooklyn artists mounted the "First Amendment Festival and Exhibition" at El Centro Cultural in Williamsburg. June 7 was Arts Day USA, a nationwide attempt by arts presenters to focus attention on the beleaguered NEA. New York museums continued to distribute information about the NEA and urged visitors to write their reps or call 800-257-4900, extension 9681, or 900-226-ARTS to send pro-NEA telegrams. Even David Dinkins (along with boro prez Ruth Messenger and cultural affairs commissioner Mary Schmidt Campbell) addressed a specially convened press extravaganza on that day. Two days earlier, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution, sponsored by Ronnie Eldridge and Bob Dryfoos, in support of NEA reauthorization without content restrictions.
Why hasn't Frohnmayer noticed these thousand points of light illuminating the entire country? Because, according to several Washington sources, he's busy getting NEA department heads to do the politicians' dirty work, i.e., to strategize about how to downsize and reorganize the NEA. Poor John. (Poor us.)
NEA Malls Itself, June 25, 1990, p. 120
In an astonishing year of "firsts" for the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency has racked up yet another: its first direct financial support for a corporate art program. Last month the NEA (quietly) announced that the Rouse Company has been awarded $50,000 to fund art projects in its shopping malls. Although NEA chairman John Frohnmayer was unavailable for comment, he observed in a statement about the award that Rouse's aptly named Art in the Marketplace program "helps to bring American families that much closer to the cultural riches our nation's artists have created. The shopping center of today reflects the fairs and marketplaces of Renaissance times."
Rouse, the nation's largest publicly held real estate developer, will match the award with $100,000. The Columbia, Maryland-based corporation will sponsor programs in 10 malls from Seattle to Staten Island. Seattle's Westlake Center will work with the Seattle Opera to present Wagner's Ring cycle through performances and costume displays, while the Staten Island Mall will team up with the Staten Island Children's Museum to offer an interactive exhibition called "Food for Thought." Other NEA-funded projects include "Senior Arts Week" at Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie, Maryland, and "City Visions," a showcase for local artists at Baltimore's Harborplace. While the concept of reaching new audiences in accessible locations is appealing, this unprecedented award to the Rouse Company establishes dangerous precedents and raises disturbing ethical questions.
The noncompetitive award to Rouse is called a cooperative agreement-rather than a grant-because the NEA can make grants only to nonprofit groups eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. Cooperative agreements are nothing new to the NEA, or to Rouse. Agency spokesperson Joshua Dare told me that the NEA has a history of nonprogram-oriented cooperative agreements to supply such things as sites for Endowment-supported activities. What is new about this one is that it authorizes the company to act as a conduit for the distribution of NEA funds to artists and groups, a function exclusively assumed-until now-by financially disinterested groups such as the New York Foundation for the Arts.
In the Republican vernacular, the privatization of such activities is touted as "public-private partnerships." But many of the NEA's public-private initiatives of the past have involved foundations instead of corporations. (Typical among them is the NEA Interarts/the Rockefeller Foundation New Forms Regional Initiative, designed to support artists outside of the normal funding loop.)
The potential for conflict of interest in the Rouse Company award is not merely gargantuan: it's built-in. The publicly funded presence of arts audiences in the 10 shopping centers will, of course, draw thousands of potential customers to businesses leasing their spaces from Rouse. Lenwood Sloan, director of the NEA's Interarts Program, which funded the award to Rouse, dismisses concerns about conflict of interest by noting that "in a partnership, the partners have equally important agendas. We can't deny that they want to draw visitors to their properties. We see this as a way to advance accessibility of the arts."
Although Sloan calls the award a "project-in-study," he also observed that "we could extend [this sort of award] to Olympia & York, who do such a brilliant arts program at Battery Park City." Is it possible that two of the biggest real estate developers in North America really need NEA funding? Especially troubling is an element of the Harundale Mall's "Senior Arts Week" festival. Three artists in residence there will produce a mural "for permanent display in the mall"; publicly funded art will be produced for a privately owned space. Rouse Company vice-president and director of corporate public affairs Cathy A. Lickteig remarked that concerns about impropriety in relation to the mural "are not an issue for any of us. The space is a mall, a place to have a lot of different experiences. It's not like other kinds of businesses."
What she (and Sloan and Frohnmayer) evoke is the changing sociological landscape. The malls may indeed be the new American Main Street, but that analogy should not be pushed too far. Unlike Main Street and the Renaissance marketplace, shopping centers are neither public property nor public arenas for the exercise of First Amendment rights. As arts attorney Barbara Hoffman noted, "The tendency of the Supreme Court has been to reject consideration of shopping centers as traditional public forums for the exercise of First Amendment rights in favor of [shopping-center owners'] property rights." If you've ever tried to set up a table in a mall to advocate abortion rights you know what Hoffman means.
Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of this award is the signal it sends to struggling arts organizations that must fundraise in an increasingly competitive and unresponsive climate. "It's shameful to give money to a huge corporation when there are arts organizations that not only deserve it more, but need it more," said Holly Block, executive director of Art in General. Or as one arts lobbyist told me, "When there are limited funds, highly profitable corporations should not be subsidized. And the bottom line is that's what this is-a subsidy."
Crit Beat, March 5, 1991, p. 78
Switch-hitting National Endowment for the Arts chairman John Frohnmayer recently reversed himself on yet another grant. St. Paul's Center for Arts Criticism will get the $25,000 award to import art writers and editors to the Twin Cities that Frohnmayer rejected last fall. Changing his mind is nothing new for the NEA chair: one of his first official acts was to recall-and then reinstate-a grant to the Artists Space gallery for its 1989 AIDS exhibition "Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing;" one of his latest reversals was the approval of a $10,000 grant to environmental artist Mel Chin that the wishy-washy agency head vetoed late last year.
What makes the CAC flip-flop significant is that it may signal a shift in the NEA's hostility toward art criticism. Despite the agency's stated mission to help foster art understanding, a vocal minority on the National Council-the chairman's presidentially appointed advisory group-spent much of the '80s lobbying against "anything that smell[ed] of criticism," as NEA fellow Ann McQueen put it in her 1990 report obtained by the Voice.
Comprising Joseph Epstein, Jacob Neusner, New Criterion publisher Samuel Lipman, and painter Helen (nary-a-good-review-since-'62) Frankenthaler, the council's neo-con cabal killed what it regarded as the left-leaning-critic's fellowships in 1983. (Some have suggested that the council's assault on critics was a dress rehearsal for the contemplated dismantling of the entire NEA.) By the late '80s, the National Council's antipathy to criticism had grown so virulent that a rejection of a 1988 grant to the Center for Arts Criticism was actually overridden by Reagan-appointed chairman Frank Hodsoll.
Are things looking up? Frohnmayer's favorable response to the CAC's appeal is a positive sign, although agency spokesperson Joshua Dare could find no evidence of any public statement about art criticism by the chairman. (Frohnmayer was traveling and unavailable for comment.) But based on private conversations, visual art program director Susan Lubowsky believes that Frohnmayer is pro-criticism-or pro-"discourse," as crit is now known at the NEA. "Education and outreach are two of his priorities," she said, "and criticism is part of them."
More important, the intransigent anticriticism minority on the National Council is nearly history: Lipman's tenure ended in 1988; Neusner's, Epstein's, and Frankenthaler's terms were up in 1990, although the last two continue to serve pending replacement. While report-writer McQueen feels optimistic that criticism will be more broadly funded by the NEA of the '90s, she also observed that "I don't think they'll ever go back to individual grants for critics."
Not under this regime, anyway.
NEA Note, June 11, 1991, p. 92
The National Endowment for the Art's chair (yes, the F person) may vacillate, hesitate, prevaricate, and ditz, but the peer panels continue to do their jobs. The 1991 grants to visual artists organizations were just announced (a modest $1.8 million to be shared by 124 groups) and local troublemakers were apparently not punished for past "sins." Artists Space-organizers of "Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing," the 1989 AIDS exhibition that was F's first trial-by-fire-received $45,000, the second largest grant awarded. Creative Time-which initially kissed off its 1990 grant by refusing to sign the recently invalidated obscenity oath-received the same amount.
Then there's the strange case of artist Mel Chin, whose grant F vetoed, then capriciously restored. This talented eco-conceptualist and (presumably) danger to the republic will show "The State of Heaven" at the Storefront for Art and Architecture starting September 12. His exhibition-memorial to the ozone layer takes the form of a hand-knotted carpet that will be systematically destroyed during the show's run. More exhibitions are self-destructing now than at any time since Jean Tinguely's Homage to New York did itself in at MOMA in 1960. It's hard to imagine a more telling sign of the times.
Abort Supreme Court, June 11, 1991, p. 92
The National Campaign for Freedom of Expression's new executive director, David Mendoza, didn't officially assume the leadership of the feisty artist advocacy group until June 1. But that didn't stop the savvy director of Seattles's Artist Trust and former assistant to NYSCA chair Kitty Carlisle Hart from criss-crossing the country in late May to advise a convocation of foundation honchos about censorship and to help devise a strategy enabling a certain off-the-record artist to exhibit his safer-sex images without censorship. Now Mendoza's worried about the Supreme Court's noxious ruling upholding the ban on abortion counseling at federally funded clinics.
"The minute I heard about the decision, I wondered about the affect on our suit charging that the NEA Four-Finley, Fleck, Miller and Hughes-were denied funding for the politics of their art," Mendoza told me. He wasn't anxious for nothing. A day later solicitor general Kenneth W. Starr publicly applauded the Supreme Court's gutting of the First Amendment: "The government is able to take sides; it is able to have viewpoints when it is funding. It can choose to fund Shakespeare and decline to fund Moliere." Starr wouldn't respond to Washington reporters' questions about restrictions on federal arts funding. Could his choice of an arts-related example of government control have been mere coincidence? "Extremely unlikely," responded NCFE's legal counsel, Ellen Yaroshevsky.
September 17, 1991
...On the other hand, the experience of San Diego's Installation Gallery suggests that because the NEA investigation of "America's Finest?"-pointed art-commentary about the local police on bus bench-advertising space-found that the gallery operated within NEA guidelines...the NEA ought to change those guidelines. On August 1, the NEA announced that future guidelines will mandate that commercial advertising space cannot be purchased by artists for "purposes that related to a local issue about which there are a variety of opinions."
Huh? As Installation Gallery director Craig Freeman and the "America's Finest?" artists (David Avalos, Louis Hock, Elizabeth Sisco, and Deborah Small) note: "How does the purchase of commercial advertising space differ from the purchase of other art materials (goods or sevices)?" Is the NEA in the business of reclassifying art as "special advocacy" despite peer panel recommendations for funding? How will issues be defined as local? All that's clear is that what Jesse Helms can't do, the NEA is going to do for him.
Organizations are increasingly shackled by burdensome guidelines as idividual artists are cut out of the action. (Whatever happened to deregulation?) If the so-called NEA 4 were applying for New Forms (funding category) grants as individuals today, they'd be dealing with Interdisciplinary Projects, a category open only to presenting organizations. You can discuss all this with Lenwood Sloan, director of the NEA's Interarts-oops! soon to be Presenting and Commissioning-program at a forum sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council on Thursday, September 12, at Cooper Union's Great Hall from 6 to 8 p.m.
Movement Research, October 15, 1991
The NEA version of the current Movement Research flap would have us believe that the downtown dance/performance organization violated the terms of the federal agency's grant with its recent Performance Journal No. 3. The offensive material? The publication's gender-issues theme ("...does not appear to speak to the dance community on issues specific to dance or performance art," according to a September 9 letter to MR from Endowment staffer Laurence Baden) and a prochoice artwork complete with female genitalia in close-up ("...intended to influence the public and to lobby members of Congress with regard to pending legislation."). The NEA's demand? Return $1400 of the $4400 grand. Don't even think about how many tax dollars it took to send an NEA auditor to New York to examine MR's books, much less the cost of the possible lawsuit to come.
Progressive advocacy groups' interpretations of the NEA's assault on the small organization differ markedly from the federal agency's. David Mendeza, executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, characterizes the endowment's demand as "completely ridiculous, yet another instance of the chilling effect." In a September 26 letter to NEA chair John Frohnmayer, ACLU executive director Ira Glasser terms the endowment's motives "essentially political" and observes that, "As a practical matter, this strategy is doomed to fail...But the principle is more important. We fear the NEA has abandoned a grantee-and, by inference, artists more broadly-as part of an appeasement-driven political survival strategy." We couldn't have said it better. Glasser has not-as of this writing-received a reply.
February 4, 1992
The ACLU project also recently joined ranks with the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression and the Center for Constitutional Rights in the long simmering "NEA 4" lawsuit. (That's the case brought by artists Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller charging that in 1990 the four were denied grants on political grounds.) Oral arguments will finally be heard in Los Angeles Federal District Court on February 3 and the importance of the suit is burgeoning.
What's at stake now? The NEA 4's legal team is attacking not just the allegedly illegal rationale for the grant rejections, but the constitutionality of the "decency language" contained in recent NEA funding bills. NCFE attorney Mary Dorman told me that Justice Department memoranda reveal that the government will attempt to apply Rust v. Sullivan content restrictions-the gag rule that prevents doctors at federally funded clinics from mentioning the A-word-to arts funding, making virtually any of Jesse Helms's censorious mandates legal. "They're formidable adversaries with deep pockets," Dorman commented. "But if we're going to lose our rights, it ought to happen in public." Dorman predicts that Judge A. Wallace Tashima will take a month or two to reach her decision about whether to dismiss the case, to find against the NEA in summary judgement, or to proceed on to a trial.
Bushanan's NEA, May 12, 1992, p. 92
Anybody who thinks that George Bush's firing of NEA chief John Frohnmayer was an isolated incident should think again. Pandering to the Bushananites has become virtual policy under Anne-Imelda Radice, now the agency's acting head. Harassing progressive arts organizations is hardly a new m.o. for the Endowment, but it's on the rise. Some current targets include New York's Creative Time and three California groups: Frameline (in San Francisco), Installation Gallery (San Diego), and LACE (Los Angeles).
Although each case is different, taken together they offer a quartet of variations on the same, unsavory theme. LACE and Installation Gallery were asked by the NEA to remove-retroactively-the agency's name from printed matter. LACE supposedly erred by continuing its long-standing practice of crediting NEA support (along with that of 76 other funders) on its February-March calendar, which promotes such naughty (unfunded) events as the annual "Valentine's 'Erotica' Bash" and the "Tribute to Tom of Finland." Installation Gallery artists Louis Hock, Scott Kessler, Carla Kirkwood, Elizabeth Sisco, and Deborah Small are accused of deviating from their grant proposal for the recent exhibition, "NHI" (police jargon for "no humans involved"), about the little-noted San Diego murders of 45 women (since 1985) designated as prostitutes or drug users. The documents in fact suggest that former NEA Inter-Arts program head Loris Bradley was updated as the project evolved, which-as Hock observed-is far from the point. "The NEA will do anything to distance itself from this work," the artist said. "If they're so concerned, why haven't they sued to recover the money?"
A new strategy for covering the endowment's right flank seems calculated to prevent funds from getting into troublemaking hands. Creative Time's and Frameline's grant applications have been tied up since January. In Creative Time's case, that was two weeks after the Manhattan organization was attacked in the right-wing press for sponsoring pro-choice and AIDS-prevention videotapes. Frameline director Tom Di Maria says that he was told by NEA staffers in January that funding for the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival-one of the organization's many projects-was in jeopardy in light of its "impact on the future of the NEA." Endowment higher-ups urged Di Maria to rewrite his grant to exclude support for the festival. Given such patently illegal NEA capitulations to political pressures, will Frameline sue? "Probably," sighed Di Maria. "What else can we do?" (NEA spokesperson Joshua Dare refused to comment, citing agency policy precluding discussion of grant applicants.)
NEA Update, June 9, 1992, p. 97
Despite the mainstream media's lackadaisical coverage of recent NEA events, the troubled agency is rapidly imploding. Following the May 15 walkout by the Visual Arts Program's sculpture panel to protest acting chair Anne-Imelda Radice's veto of grants to MIT and Virginia Commonwealth University for exhibitions about the body, several other panels have responded in protest: the special exhibitions panel whose recommendations Radice overrode delivered a vehement letter of protest to the agency on May 19, as did the Museum Program's very establishment overview panel two days later. On May 20, the solo theater artists panel refused to even consider grant applications in the current, poisonous atmosphere.
As of this writing, that's far from all. Boston's Beacon Press and Washington's Artist Trust (along with three Seattle artists) have rejected grants totaling $56,000 to protest Radice's vetoes. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Wallace Stegner has declined his National Medal of Arts on the heels of Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim's earlier rejection, making it two down and 10 to go for the dozen NMA medalists who will be honored in July. The rock group Aerosmith gave $10,000 to MIT on May 20 to fund the university's body-art show, establishing a Broadway-to-CBGB sensibility range of support that mirrors the broad backing for an independent NEA found in a recent Harris poll.
What's likely to happen this month? Count on more controversy. Flash points include already approved and likely to be problematic grants awaiting Radice's assent or veto. At least four grant-seeking organizations fall into this category: Visual AIDS (for the "Electric Blanket" show of AIDS images), Frameline (for the distribution of gay and lesbian films), Highways (for the commissioning and production of multicultural and queer performance works), and Creative Time (for various programs, including Art in the Anchorage). Expect fragmentary, crisis-diffusing reports from our local dailies. The New York Times's minimal coverage suggests that it has already adopted the "save the NEA at any cost to individual freedoms" position. Sondheim's barely noted statement and Stegner's unmentioned rejection of the NMA contrast sharply with the headlines accorded Leonard Bernstein's rejection of the same award in 1989. New York Newsday remains a better bet-for spotty wire-service briefs, at least.
The weirdest aspect of the current NEA reporting is the on-again, off-again coverage of Radice's outing. Most of the "problematic" grants mentioned above involve the sort of queer art with which the Helmsites-and now Radice-continue to bludgeon the NEA. On May 15, Queer Nation held a press conference outing the acting chair, which was covered by such mainstream non-New York papers as the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Oregonian. The Advocate issued a release titled "NEA Chief Not Even Worth an Outing," noting that Radice is not a closeted lesbian, although it seems that she returned to the closet after her latest appointment. The National Campaign for Freedom of Expression issued a bizarrely worded release observing that "it is too late to try to keep a finger in the dyke at the NEA." According to NEA and Washington insiders, Radice is already out to the White House-it's been reported that she's contacted the PR honchos at Hill and Knowlton for gay spin control, which suggests why she will not be appointed NEA chair. Perhaps it will also prevent her from nabbing the European ambassadorship that the same sources say has been promised her after she's straightened out the NEA. (The White House did not return calls for comment.) Either way, Radice has already earned a place in history alongside Lynne Cheney, who eviscerated the National Endowment for the Humanities during the '80s.
NEA to LA: Drop Dead, July 21, 1992
While it will take at least $500 million just to physically rebuild riot-torn areas of Los Angeles, the NEA has allocated the first installment of an eventual $150,000 to help heal South Central L.A. But even that pitiful figure is misleading: $50,000 previously approved for the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department has simply been transferred to the L.A. agency's Arts Recovery Fund. A munificent $30,000 is destined for artists' residencies and after-school programs at a Crenshaw district art center. But the kicker is a $70,000 grant to Urban Innovations, the nonprofit branch of UCLA's School of Architecture and Urban Design, for redesigning a portion of the decimated ghetto in conjunction with community-based planners. When the NEA convened five urban-design experts to evaluate the UCLA proposal, the group unanimously rejected it as ill-conceived. (Architect M. David Lee termed the proposal "public relations.") Reflecting the NEA's indifference to panel input--and the administration's desperation to appear to be doing something about the urban malaise--the federal arts agency simply repackaged the proposal and submitted it to a largely nonexpert panel of state arts administrators. The cooperative panelists approved it, as did acting chair Anne-Imelda Radice on June 24.
Censorama, January 10, 1992
For the NEA's sake-and our's-I hope that by the time you read this Bill Clinton will have been elected president. If so, painter William Bailey will be the last Bush appointee to the National Council on the Arts, the 26-member body that advises the NEA chair. Confirmed by the Senate on September 17, Bailey holds dangerously simplistic views about pornography and the funding of controversial art, as a snippet from an October 1989 interview with ARTNews's Robin Cembalest reveals:
"There are lots of artworks that might be considered pornography... But within the NEA there should be serious discussion as to what's appropriate for the exhibitions they underwrite... To say that just because a picture of a man with a whip up his butt is a work of art doesn't mean that it still isn't a man with a whip up his butt. Any sensible grown-up would guess that it probably would be offensive to a large segment of the population. I also think that to equate this stance with that of a totalitarian suppression of the arts is very silly..."
So, Bill, some art is pornography-never mind the Supreme Court's tortuously determined distinctions between the two. And "offensive" art shouldn't be funded by the NEA, despite the agency's legal mandate to ignore content-related political pressures when conferring grants. Bailey, by the way, is replacing arch-conservative council member Helen Frankenthaler.
Obviously Art v. Obscenity is not yet history. Remember the so-called Helms-Amendment, the decency requirement for the awarding of NEA grants? It was struck down by Judge A. Wallace Tashima in June and appealed by the Justice Department. Pro bono arts attorneys handling this so-called NEA 4 case tell me that courts generally don't drop such suits when administrations change. The case could drag on long past the next NEA reauthorization in 1993, since the presiding Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal's backlog now averages two years, according to attorney Mary D. Dorman.
NEA Hole, February 2, 1993, p. 83
On January 19, outgoing acting NEA chair Anne-Imelda Radice appointed Ana M. Steele, a career agency-staffer, as her replacement until a Clinton-appointed chair is confirmed by the Senate later this year. Sounds like business as usual, right? But what actually prompted Steel's appointment was a memo Radice circulated in December brazenly naming a right-wing political appointee to temporarily shepherd the NEA. Why Radice's blatant power grab? Whatever her motives (apart from bile and bitterness), it appears that Saddam Hussein wasn't the only censor trying to exploit a Washington power vacuum in the waning days of the Bush era.
The "Decency Czarina"'s successor-of-choice was Roberta "Bobbie" Dunn, the NEA's conservative congressional liaison and former Heritage Foundation and Orrin Hatch staffer. Dunn and the Clinton transition team resolved the simmering crisis that made career employees "hysterical," as one NEA staffer put it: Dunn circulated a memo on January 11 announcing that she would be leaving the agency for a Washington law firm, and the transition team made certain that Radice chose a more sympatico successor. (During the last party switch, Jimmy Carter's departing NEA chair, Livingston Biddle, stayed on until his replacement was confirmed.) According to now-former NEA public affairs director Jill Collins, Radice is off to Miami, where she'll join a new consulting firm headed by Robert Gray, the former chair of Hill & Knowlton Public Affairs Worldwide, which has been aptly described as the "CIA of public relations firms." And won't it be nice for Radice to be near former Corcoran Museum director and Mapplethorpe censor Christina Orr-Cahall, director of the Norton Gallery in Palm Beach? As for the identity of the next NEA chair, transition honcho Deborah Sale isn't saying, but she did tell me to expect the appointment-to be distinguished from the Senate's lengthy confirmation process-by mid-February.
September 28, 1993
The NEA-ludicrously perceived by the mainstream media and the religious right as queer-friendly-reversed (on procedural grounds) a 1992 decision denying funding to three gay film festivals, but only after an ACLU appeal. The Christian Action Network has predictably called for NEA acting chair Ana Steele's head and put together a 15-minute clips-tape pirated from the exhibited films. Looks to me like another case of copyright violation à la Donald Wildmon's much-litigated rip-offs of David Wojnarowicz's work.
Last spring, I wrote about an April 22 meeting at which NEA acting deputy chair for programs A. B. Spellman promised to raise the idea of expanding the reach of the NEA's Expansion Arts Program to lesbians and gays. Spellman kept his promise. The program's overview panel, however, concluded that queers are not underserved, and that only queers of color fit the program's criteria. As San Francisco arts consultant Jeff Jones pointed out to me, just a handful of openly gay artists or projects were funded last year. "Isn't this the definition of underserved?" Jones asked. "There should be a special program for lesbian and gay artists and it's the NEA's job to figure out how to create it."
NEA Report, February 1, 1994
No one can accuse Jane Alexander of fiddling in Washington while the arts burn. To fulfill her goal of visiting all 50 states, the dynamic NEA chairman has already visited a New Hampshire prison and performed with Mississippi's Peanut Butter & Jelly Theater, garnering rapturous press wherever she's gone. She also held a series of private meetings with New York art mavens on December 17. One confab on the Upper West Side included the heads of alternative spaces and small museums. The half dozen participants I spoke with described the two-hour meeting as "frank" and "informative," and Alexander as "likable" and "attentive." They also noted that the NEA chief believes the movement of federal arts funding into arts education is inexorable and that the arts communities are perceived in Washington as inflexible. Ouch!
If there were few surprises, there was also little rancor. It might have erupted when Drawing Center head Ann Philbin raised the issue of the inevitable "problematic" moments when arts groups disagree with policies like the current appeal to reinstate the decency language. Alexander, however, sidestepped the question, citing the necessity for case-by-case judgment. Since the government's decency language appeal will be argued in federal court on February 3-after which a judicial panel will likely take months to write its decision-this is hardly a theoretical matter. Although traveling and unavailable for comment, Alexander has said in the past that she has no public position on decency language until the issue is resolved in court. But, according to artist Karen Finley, she told Finley in private last fall that she "couldn't" denounce the restrictive language. Does anybody in Washington remember the arts plank of the Democratic party platform-that stirring ode to the First Amendment? Or is it simply more "don't ask/don't recall"?
Sketchbook, April 26, 1994
On March 5, Ron Athey presented one of his typically on-edge performances at Patrick's Cabaret in Minneapolis as part of that city's queer film festival. (If you missed Athey's P.S. 122 gig last June, the Los Angeles-based HIV-positive performer ritualistically carves and needles his own and other performers' flesh to create bloody images that conflate the sacred and profane.) Since the Minneapolis event was sponsored by the Walker Art Center and about $150 in NEA funding went into it, the tempest-in-a-teapot that brewed isn't surprising. It was stirred up by an incendiary and inaccurate (Minneapolis) Star Tribune article written-oddly enough-by a former Walker public relations director. So what's next? Check your mailboxes for televangelists' fundraising letters bearing images of Athey's pierced visage.
The most bracing news is not just that this tempest has remained inside its pot-perhaps due to media boredom with art bashing and an out-of-session Congress-but the cheering fierceness of NEA chair Jane Alexander's response. She told The Washington Post that she backed the Walker's judgment that "appropriate precautions" involving the blood were taken. "So what are we left with that was considered controversial?" the arts agency head asked. "The scarification, the ritual-like aspect? Is it that the man is homosexual? I think these are areas that have to be carefully considered." Happily, Alexander's already figured out that it's essential to take the offensive against censors, something her feckless predecessor, John Frohnmayer, never learned.
NEA 3 (strikes), September 27, 1994, p. 95
Last month's decision by the NEA's National Council on the Arts nixing fellowships to photographers Merry Alpern, Barbara DeGenevieve, and Andres Serrano may not stand. The same coalition of pro-First Amendment groups that defended the NEA 4-the ACLU Arts Censorship Project, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression-is now representing the three rejected photographers, who are considering litigation. On August 26, the coalition sent a letter to NEA chair Jane Alexander asking that the council reconsider its decision and that copies of documents relating to the trio's 1994 fellowship applications be released. (The agency is complying with this Freedom of Information Act request, according to NEA spokesperson Josh Dare.) The missive also put the NEA on notice that the signatories "believe that the decision to deny these grants violated both the NEA's governing statute and the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution."
If you believe that council members were motivated only by aesthetic-rather than inappropriately political-considerations during their 34 minutes of deliberations about the photography fellowships, then consider a few of their comments: theater director George White said of Serrano that the NEA must be "sensitive to the nature of public sponsorship as well as an equally clear message Congress has recently given this agency regarding the appropriation." Art patron Louise McClure termed Alpern's and DeGenevieve's work "not within Congress's guidelines," while scholar Barbara Grossman suggested that "we can't be myopic about the reality of funding..."
What's wrong with a process that favors the ill-informed judgments of two dozen political appointees over a panel of experts? Andy Grundberg, chair of the photography panel that recommended the fellowships, noted in an August 17 Los Angeles Times article that no photography expert sits on the council and that not every council member even saw slides of the work under discussion. Painter William Bailey's dangerously irrelevant patter-"If we had someone submitting work which had Nazi propaganda in it, or some other hateful sort of message, we'd jump right to it, I expect, in not backing the grant"-earns him the neocon pit-bull mantle previously doffed by former council member Helen Frankenthaler. Based on a transcript of the meeting, no one present even realized that this body had never before (or at least not since National Council meetings were opened to the public in 1990) squashed a fellowship panel's recommendations.
Jane Alexander's only public utterance on the matter has been a positively Frohnmayer-esque defense of the grant denials as solely based on artistic merit-that is, their lack of it. The council, she told The Washington Post, was "talking about the quality of the work; it was all about the quality." (In)famous last words for an independent NEA?