In the presence of armed federal marshall – called in amidst rumors there would be a protest from gay activists – the National Council on the Arts convened in Washington, D.C. for its mid-summer quarterly meeting on July 31 and Aug. 1. Voting in favor of all 828 grants recommended by the Arts Endowment’s advisory panels, the council gave a green light to $3,750 for Highways, the Santa Monica performance space co-founded by Tim Miller, to support performances by Holly Hughes. The two controversial performance artists are among the “NEA Four,” who have filed suit against the NEA, claiming that their previous grant rejections were politically motivated. Acting NEA chairman Anne-Imelda Radice, who will have the final say on the latest council-recommended grants, had not made her intentions known at press time.
In the course of the meeting, council members and Radice engaged in unusually heated discussions over two controversial grants rejected by the acting chairman after the previous quarterly council meeting. When asked to explain her reasons for withholding approval for two $10,000 grants (which peer review panels and the council had previously recommended) for exhibitions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s List Visual Arts Center and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Anderson Gallery, Radice defended her action without explanation, saying only, “I made the decision very carefully. I thought about it a great deal. I have nothing to add about my action.”
While council member Louise McClure, wife of former Republican senator James McClure, and several other council members praised Radice for being “very courageous,” poet Donald Hall called her explanation “inadequate and disingenuous.”
Ten days earlier, the two galleries submitted an 11-page “Petition for Appeal of Denials of Funding” to the council, contending that, while the chairman has the ultimate authority, Congress intended a “consultative process” when it established the National Council to advise on “policies, programs and procedures for carrying out the chairman’s functions, duties and responsibilities.”
As acting chairman, the petition argues, Radice has not been confirmed by the Senate, thus increasing the council’s responsibility as “the only individuals specifically empowered by Congress” until a new chairman is confirmed.
Expressing concern that Radice’s actions might be cited as precedent in the future, and claiming that her actions were at variance with the NEA’S authorizing legislation, mission statement and guidelines, the petition calls for the establishment of an appeals process for applicants whose funding is denied by the chairman following positive recommendations by panels and the council.
In response to the ongoing controversy, council member Roger Mandle, deputy director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, called for the establishment of a committee to study the details of the grantmaking process. Later the council voted 13-to-1 to form such a committee, whose stated purpose is “to act as a resource and advisory body to the acting chairman between full council meetings.”
At the same meeting, council members approved an agency plan to use $750,000 – funds unallocated by the NEA Sculpture panel that suspended grant review deliberations after the Radice rejections, citing frustration over a perceived ambiguity in grantmaking criteria – for regional sculpture fellowship programs. The Endowment had already redistributed $210,000 from the Solo Theatre Performers category, whose panel had adjourned without completing the review process; while $100,000 was reallocated to several other programs within the agency, $110,000 was retained by the Theater Program to fund additional onsite visits to applicants. Solo Performers will be unable to reapply to the NEA in the coming year, because of a rotating-year schedule.
A recent NEA staff appointment is also causing concern in the visual arts community and more criticism of acting chairman Radice. Former program panelists and arts observers charge that Rosilyn Alter, appointed by Radice in August to head the agency’s Visual Arts Program, has no training or background in contemporary art – credentials that many believe are requisite for the director of a program dealing with living artists – and lacks sufficient knowledge of the contemporary art field to select qualified panelists. Alter most recently served as director of the Blaffer Foundation in Houston, curator of Italian art at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla. and an assistant administrator at the Phillips Collection in Washington.
Not everyone, however, is critical of Radice’s actions. She has received praise from several congressional leaders, and, after a recent meeting with the acting NEA chairman, leaders of the Christian Action Network – a spinoff of the Moral Majority – announced that it would end its two-year campaign to abolish the federal agency, explaining that changes instituted by Radice had caused them to abandon their crusade.
In a welcome moment of rhetorical respite, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the 1993 Interior Appropriations bill in early August without the heated floor debates sparked by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and other conservative senators that had characterized recent years. Nevertheless, the bill included a cut for the Arts Endowment alone, as most of the other federal arts and cultural agencies, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum Services, received small increases. The Senate Appropriations Committee sent the bill to the Senate floor having sliced $910,000 from the NEA’S request for a new category for international programs and $300,000 from the administrative budget, bringing the total 1993 NEA budget to $174.75 million – $1.2 million less than last year’s level of $175.96 million, which the House of Representatives approved in July. At press time, the House-Senate conference to reconcile differences in the two versions of the Interior bill had not yet been scheduled.
Making the news in July and August were the national conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties in New York and Houston. Both parties included references to the arts in their platforms, as excerpted here:
REPUBLICAN PLATFORM: Government has a responsibility … to insure that it promotes the common moral values that bind us together as a nation. We therefore condemn the use of public funds to subsidize obscenity and blasphemy masquerading as art. The fine arts, including those with public support, can certainly enrich our society. However, no artist has an inherent right to claim taxpayer support for his or her private vision of art of that vision mocks the moral and spiritual basis an which our society is founded. We believe a free market in art – with neither suppression nor favoritism by government – is the best way to foster the cultural revival our country needs.
DEMOCRATIC PLATFORM: We believe in public support for the arts, including the National Endowment for the Arts, that is free from political manipulation and firmly rooted in the First Amendment’s freedom of expression guarantee.