Escalating controversy leaves the Endowment in disarray
Within just two weeks of assuming her position, the new acting chairman of the National Edowment for the Arts sparked a new round of controversy for the agency, creating a volatile atmosphere just as its annual congressional appropriations process was getting underway.
Anne-Imelda Radice, who took over the NEA’s leadership on May 1 following John Frohnmayer’s forced resignation, wasted no time in letting it be known that she meant for the beleaguered NEA to “regain the confidence of the American people and their representatives in Congress,” and that, in doing so, she viewed her role and the agency’s funding policy quite differently than did her predecessors.
After telling a congressional subcommittee that she would use her authority to veto grants for work that she feels “has difficult subject matter or flies in the face of deeply held religious beliefs,” she illustrated her words by turning down two Museum Program grants. At press time, her veto of the grants–whose funding had been strongly recommended by both the National Council on the Arts and an Endowment review panel–had set off a chain reaction that prompted two other review panels, including the Theater Program’s solo theatre artists fellowship panel, to suspend deliberations in unprecedented acts of protest, unleashing a barrage of press coverage and public response.
Radice–the former chief arts adviser at the U.S. Information Agency’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs prior to her appointment as the NEA’s chief deputy a year ago–presided over her first National Council on the Arts meeting in early May. The council approved panel recomendations for more than 1,100 grants at the quarterly meeting, including $10,000 recommended by the Museum Program’s special exhibitions panel to the List Visual Arts Center of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The grant was to support “Corporal Politics,” an exhibition examining sexism and other social problems through metaphorical depictions of human body parts, including genitalia. Following pointed deliberation over the potentially controversial application, the council voted 11-to-1 to support it.
The following week, Radice testified before the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Sidney Yates (D-III.). When asked by Rep. Yates whether artistic excellence should remain the primary criterion for awarding NEA grants, Radice replied, “Excellence is more than technical ability or trendiness or expression of social concerns. There are the concerns of the taxpayer, the concerns of Congress, as well.”
“If we find a proposal that does not have the widest audience…even though it may havee been done very sincerely and with the highest intentions, we just can’t afford to fund that,” she said at another point in her testimony.
Radice avowed her willingness to overrule panel recommendations and veto grants for sexually explicit or other controversial works, suggesting that they could be funded by the private sector rather than with taxpayer dollars. She indicated that she considers neither the controversial homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe nor the graphic poem “Wild Thing,” written in the fictitious voice on one of the teenagers involved in the Central Park jogger rape, suitable for federal funding. The Endowment grants for a Mapplethorpe retrospective and a literary journal that published the poem were among the more controversial grants made since the beginning of the federal funding debate three years ago.
Overruling both panel and council recommendations just a week after the hearings, Radice exercised her veto power on the recommended grant to the List Visual Arts Center, as well as one to the Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University, also for $10,000, for a proposed photography and video exhibition entitled “Anonymity and Identity” that was to include a work that incorporates more than 100 tiny photographs, one of which is of a penis.
Despite the panel and council endorsements and the considerable reputation of some of the artists to be included in the exhibits, the acting chairman issued a statement that averred, “Grant applications are evaluated on the basis of artistic excellence and artistic merit. did not measure up to these criteria and, therefore, are unlikely to have the long-term artistic significance necessary to merit Endowment funding.” But an NEA spokesman indicated that the sexual content of the exhibits played a part in Radice’s decision, telling the Washington Post, “Excellence includes artistry, access and diversity….When subject matter overtakes the artistry, that provides a concern and becomes an issue in the analysis of the project.”
Members of the arts community were dismayed by the acting chairman’s unilateral action and, at press time, the protests were escalating. The first move came from the seven-member Visual Arts sculpture fellowship panel, which was concurrently reviewing grant applications. Distressed by the acting chairman’s apparent disregard for the panel-council review process, the panel called a halt to its meeting. In a letter to Radice, the artists, critics and curators who comprised the panel explained that “the criteria used to judge grants have been altered and have been subjected to concerns neither stated nor defined in the program guidelines,” thus forcing the panel to suspend deliberations until “established procedures of the Endowment are restored.”
Less than a week later, the nine-member Theater Program panel for solo theatre artist fellowships followed suit. In a letter to Radice announcing their decision, the theatre panelists expressed their belief that the founding principles of the NEA “have been compromised” by the recent grant vetoes and stated that they would not resume their deliberations until the acting chairman reversed her decision and approved the two grant awards.
Radice responded: “I am saddened by the panel’s decision not to serve because, in the end, it will be the artists who will be deprived of recognition and financial support.”
The Endowment lost no time in announcing that, because of the panel’s action, grant review of all solo theatre artist fellowships would be cancelled, applicants informed, their material returned and the funds used elsewhere. According to reports, the fellowship funds were being removed from the Theater Program budget and reallocated to “other uses.” Further, because the category is funded in alternating year cycles, it will not be open for applications from solo artists again until fiscal 1994. (The sculpture panel, however, had reviewed enough application material for the agency to announce it would go ahead with grant awards.) The Theatre Communications Group board of directors wrote a letter to the acting chairman expressing dismay that applicants would be “penalized for an administrative breakdown at the agency,” and requesting an alternative solution that would “enable the grants to go forward to solo theatre artists, or at least retain the funds within the Theater Program.”
Twelve solo artist-applicants issued a statement supporting “the difficult decision made by the panel to hold Anne-Imelda Radice acountable for her actions, which are undermining the peer panel process and restricting free artistic expression.”
Erosion of freedoms
In a May 25 press release, the American Arts Alliance expressed regret over Radice’s decision “to substitute her judgment for that of the combined expertise of two diverse adjudicatory bodies.” Radice also received a letter in support of the sculpture panel from the Museum Program’s overview panel, which includes highly placed museum professionals from such institutions as Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum in Michigan, San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, Yale University Art Gallery and Baltimore Museum of Art, expressing regret that projects were being rejected on the basis of criteria other than artistic merit. “If you intend to sustain this practice,” they continued, “we urge you to be more forthright in articulating the NEA’s current position relative to the specific reasons for rejection of grant applications.” The letter called upon the acting chairman to “articulate to all applicants and panelists that grant applications may be rejected for any reason whatsoever, based on no more than your personal and unilateral judgment; make public the explicit reasons for any and all rejections of recommended grant applications, without any dissembling or equivocation…; and promulgate revised NEA program guidelines that accurately reflect the…decision-making realities of the present-day process.”
The controversy gained another dimension when the popular rock group Aerosmith staged a press conference at the List Center in Cambridge, denouncing the Radice vetoes and donating $10,000 to support the “Corporal Politics” exhibit. “We’re angered to see and personal freedom erode,” Aerosmith said in a prepared statement.
Jon Robin Baitz, recipient of a 1992 NEA playwriting fellowship of $15,000, followed suit a week later, announcing two donations to the List Center and the Anderson Gallery equalling the amount of his own grant. In a letter announcing the gifts, Baitz declared, “I simply will not be complicit with faux-moralist sharpies of the right nor with psychosexual hysterics in the cultural sacking of this country.”
As the acts of solidarity and protest escalated, NEA review panelist Murray N. DePillars, dean of Virginia Commonwealth University’s arts school, resigned from the panel, and Beacon Press of Boston and the Artist Trust of Seattle decided to refuse funding from the agency. “Our integrity is worth more than $39.000,” stated Beacon Press director Wendy Strothman. In addition, NEA general counsel Amy Sabrin resigned in a move believed to be the result of disagreement with Radice’s congressional testimony.
Ironically, National Council member Donald Hall, the New Hampshire poet who was prevented by illness from attending the May meeting at which the two controversial Museum Program grants were considered, had sent a letter to his fellow council members prior to the meeting, strissing the importance of the council’s acceptance of review panel recommendations. “I think it is useless to overturn the judgment of panels in the attempt to be expedient, in the hope that we may appease bigots and art-bashers,” he wrote. “When we pay tribute to a bully, a bully demands more. Because attacks on the NEA are disingenous and hypocritical, answering the letter of an attack accomplishes nothing.”