Federal Arts Agency Writes Off Literary Center's Fund Request

Times Staff Writer

The Beyond Baroque Foundation, a 16-year-old literary center in Venice, has an impoverished look. The corridors are dreary, the furniture makeshift and the floors scuffed and worn.

But it always managed to eke out an existence, providing support for Los Angeles' small but passionate poetry community through workshops and a Friday night reading series.

Suddenly last month, however, the foundation learned that the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency that underwrites cultural projects with taxpayer funds, had denied Beyond Baroque's application for a $35,000 grant, a major part of the center's $100,000-plus annual budget.

Beyond Baroque had received substantial funding from the endowment for 10 years.

But after what Frank Conroy, National Endowment for the Arts' literature program director, called a "long and tortured" discussion centering on the quality of the foundation's literary output, the endowment's judging panel decided not to grant Beyond Baroque's request. "The judges' decision was subjective, to be sure," Conroy said, because "you're talking about the judgment of things like literary quality." But the endowment's decision to cut off funding was "not done on a whim."

"I suppose we should have been braced for it, since nothing is certain about federal funding," said Beyond Baroque founder and chairman George Drury Smith. "But there was no warning of this. It's left us in the lurch."

Although officials heard rumors of the panel's decision in September, it was not confirmed until last month, according to Beyond Baroque director Jocelyn Fisher. So, the foundation, which began a new fiscal year in October, has had little time to prepare for the loss.

The center's bookstore, typesetting service and reading series generate about $35,000 a year. But it relies on individual contributions and government and corporate grants for most of its operating budget, which last year was $120,000.

The foundation has about $3,000 in the bank, Fisher said.

A hastily organized benefit auction of items ranging from an old Pontiac convertible to old manuscripts and rare books netted approximately $2,000, Fisher said. Pleas for donations are being mailed to foundation supporters, and other fund-raising events, including a Feb. 8 reading by author Christopher Isherwood, are planned. The foundation has been housed in the old Venice City Hall since 1979, paying $1 in rent a year through an arrangement with the city of Los Angeles obtained by Councilwoman Pat Russell, who represents the area.

Since formed in 1968, the foundation has sponsored appearances by nationally recognized poets Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Diane Wakoski and Robert Creeley. The Friday night reading program is the longest-running poetry series in Los Angeles, Fisher said.

But the organization has concentrated on nurturing new writers who have difficulty finding an audience and getting published. Poets who give readings are guaranteed $50 to $1,500. Several of Beyond Baroque's workshop graduates are now among Los Angeles' best-known resident poets, including Kate Braverman, Bill Mohr and singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

"Beyond Baroque has been a place for developing poets," said actor-poet Harry Northup, one of the first workshop participants and author of four volumes of poetry. "It would be devastating if it had to close."

The foundation maintains a 23,000-volume library of small-press publications, dating from 1945, and publishes Beyond Baroque magazine, a collection of reviews, contemporary poetry and fiction.

Since 1975, it has operated NewComp Graphics Center, which provides low-cost typesetting and graphics service to small, nonprofit literary and arts publishers.

It was primarily that activity that caused the foundation to lose favor with the judges on the literature program panel.

The eight-member panel of writers and editors, who are selected by Conroy, were "struck by the low literary quality" of books that were published at NewComp, said Conroy, a National Book Award nominee who was appointed director of the endowment's literature program three years ago.

But in Fisher's view, that criticism was unfair because the foundation asserts no editorial control over NewComp's clients. "We felt it would stimulate literary activity if more people could afford typesetting," she said. "So we have never screened or censored the manuscripts that are typeset there but only required that they be non-commercial work."

NewComp charges $7.50 to $15 an hour, compared to commercial rates of $35 and up. Its services have been used to typeset children's poetry anthologies for participants in the California Poets-in-the-Schools Program and publications of 35 small arts and literary publishers. The latter includes Momentum Press, one of Southern California's oldest small presses, as well as a number of more obscure and esoteric publications.

Ironically, NewComp is one of the foundation's few self-supporting activities. Now that the center has lost the endowment grant--which in previous years was used to support the readings and to cover publicity costs and the salaries of one part-time and two full-time staffers--Fisher said the foundation may have to give priority to commercial typesetting jobs in order to generate more revenue.

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