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Inside Out at the NEA

by Jeff Gates


Frohnmayer's denial of fellowships to four performance artists (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller) and his reluctance to drop the "obscenity pledge" from the list of stipulations grantees must sign (despite the National Council on the Arts' recommendation that he do so), has made it clear he wants Congress to know he can toe the line. Yet, the mission of the NEA clearly states that the Endowment "must not, under any circumstances, impose a singe aesthetic standard or attempt to direct artistic content." Despite the Endowment's original mandate, to serve as a buffer between partisan politics and government support for the arts, Frohnmayer has refused to maintain this mission.

Many high level staff believe that artists' anger at the NEA is misplaced. "The NEA is not the enemy," said one staff member, who requested anonymity. "Artists should be writing Congress, not us. We are only carrying out the law." This presents a dilemma for many in the arts. Most artists believe in the NEA as an institution. But there is clearly a difference between policy, as stated and carried out at the top, and day-to-day dealings the art community has with program staff.

As NEA chairman, Frohnmayer speaks for the entire agency. In his testimony to the Independent Commission in late July he stated that the Endowment has three constituencies: the President, the Congress and the public. His omission of artists in this formula was deplorable and it should not be surprising that artists are angry. Yet those of us who deal directly with program directors and specialists have confidence that they are working hard for the implementation of our projects. My time at the NEA has only reinforced my strong support for the dedication and the incredible work of these people. We in the arts community trust those we work closely with, but distrust what we perceive as dangerous links with a narrow and conservative cultural policy. We are being forced to decide where we will draw the line and at what point we might have to withdraw our support.

text Frohnmayer believes the agency had lost the confidence of the American people and the Congress because of a few grants that were given before his administration. (His early distancing from the Serrano and Mapplethorpe affairs by calling those grants "mistakes" fueled the fires of the right and initiated the agency's politicized agenda.) He has told the staff that past successes mean little and what the NEA does from now on is what counts. The NEA, however, should not only be proud of its past accomplishments, it should publicize them. To ignore these results is a lost opportunity to counter the misinformation from the right and to educate the public to the benefits of public sponsorship of culture.


© 1990 Jeff Gates. No reproduction in whole or in part may be used without prior consent of the author.

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