Bush Chooses Outsider to Lead Endowment

Times Staff Writer

John E. Frohnmayer, an Oregon business and media lawyer and moderate Republican, is President Bush’s choice to take over as chairman of the politically besieged National Endowment for the Arts, the White House said Friday.

Disclosure of the intention to nominate Frohnmayer came after weeks of speculation about the identity of the new chairman. The endowment has been without a permanent head since the resignation of Frank Hodsell in February.

Meanwhile, in another development Friday, endowment staff members sent to a conservative congressman draft language of changes in endowment grant-evaluation rules intended to avert what many Washington observers believe is the most serious threat to the endowment’s independence since it was founded nearly 25 years ago.

But the congressman, Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.), summarily rejected the change in wording, which would re-emphasize the need for panels and individuals evaluating endowment grant applications to fund arts projects based on standards of creative excellence. Armey said he would attempt to strip at least $6 million from the endowment’s budget when the appropriation comes up for a vote before the House Wednesday.


Armey’s vow is the latest development in a simmering controversy over endowment funding of a traveling art show last year that included a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine and the endowment’s support of the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work included homoerotic themes.

In a telephone interview Friday, Armey reiterated a threat to take a selection of photographs by Mapplethorpe and the crucifix image, by New York photographer Andres Serrano, onto the House floor on Wednesday to dramatize his case against the endowment’s support of controversial art.

The Frohnmayer selection appeared to surprise some members of the East Coast arts community because Frohnmayer is not identified with what some sources in Congress and the national endowment characterized as the “New York arts mafia.”

But Chase Untermeyer, the White House director of personnel, said in a telephone interview that when the search began for a new head for the arts endowment, Bush expressed a specific preference for someone “from outside the Boston-Washington arts corridor who might provide a healthy outlook that the job needs.”


Although only two people from outside the Boston-Washington-New York area were among the six finalists for the job, Untermeyer said Bush’s selection was consistent with the president’s original preference “for having somebody who was deeply involved (in the arts) but from a community, small state basis.”

Untermeyer said the formal nomination of Frohnmayer, 47, would have to await completion of an FBI background check and evaluation of Frohnmayer’s financial disclosure statements.

In a telephone interview from his office in Portland, Frohnmayer declined to be drawn into the political tempest enveloping the endowment. He said it would be inappropriate to become involved in the controversy publicly before his confirmation hearings. The national endowment chairmanship requires Senate confirmation.

“There is no question that this is a serious issue that is being taken seriously by all sides,” he said of the threat by conservative congressmen and senators, including Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), to strike at the endowment’s budget in an attempt to pressure the endowment into regulation of subject matter content of art.


But in past congressional testimony, Frohnmayer has emerged as an emphatic advocate of federal support for the arts. Testifying in opposition to deep cuts in the national endowment’s budget proposed by the Reagan Administration in 1981, Frohnmayer called such a plan “disastrous.”

“There is a definite domino effect from the loss of federal dollars,” he said eight years ago. “When the NEA gives a grant to an organization or project, that serves as a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It is definitely easier to attract corporate or private funds when the national endowment has evaluated and approved a project. Such private support would simply (not be there) without the catalytic effect of national endowment dollars.”

Frohnmayer, who is himself a talented amateur singer, has two sons who are professional musicians. He was director of the International Sculpture Symposium in Eugene, Ore., in 1974 and chaired a committee that selected artworks for the Oregon Capitol in 1977.

He headed the Oregon Arts Commission from 1980 to 1984 and was a member of the commission for eight years. His law practice focuses on business law, including contract, real property and other commercial disputes. He has practiced First Amendment, libel and media law in Oregon and represents a Portland television station and several small newspapers in the state.


Frohnmayer’s wife, Leah, is a member of the Portland school board. The couple has two sons, Jason, 19, a student at Northern Arizona University, and Aaron, 17, a Portland high school student.

In Washington, sources within the national endowment said the Frohnmayer nomination was greeted enthusiastically in the organization. Frohnmayer’s lack of identity with established political factions in the East Coast arts community was widely perceived as a significant advantage.

Anne Murphy, executive director of the Washington-based American Arts Alliance, called the Frohnmayer nomination “a breath of fresh air.”

She said Frohnmayer “comes to the job with a knowledge of the arts, a belief in the arts and a caring for the arts and yet he hasn’t been so involved (in the East Coast arts establishment) that he comes with any preconceived, preset values.”


John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu and president of the Art Museum Directors Assn., said of Frohnmayer: “I don’t know him yet, but everything we’ve heard about him so far is good.

“I’m very encouraged. It’s a tough moment for the NEA. It’s time for a strong appointment.”