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House Chastises Arts Endowment With $45,000 Cut

Times Staff Writer

After an emotional debate over the value of public funding for controversial art, the House voted Wednesday to cut a slap-on-the-wrist $45,000 from the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The House’s action comes as the latest development in a furor over arts endowment grants for two exhibits: a show of photographs, some with homoerotic and sexually explicit themes by late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and a traveling art show that included an Andres Serrano photograph of a crucifix dipped in urine.

Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Tex.) asked for the cuts as a “symbolic gesture” to punish the endowment for funding the Mapplethorpe and Serrano projects. The cut equals the combined amount of the two grants.

Many lawmakers voted for the cuts in order to kill one amendment that would have deleted more than $14 million from the endowment’s budget and another amendment that endeavored to kill the endowment’s entire budget of $171 million.

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The House Appropriations Committee recently recommended a $2.3-million increase in the arts endowment’s budget, bringing the total to $171.4 million next year.

In a debate that crossed party lines, some congressmen questioned whether the budget cuts amounted to government censorship of artists, while others said that the public had a right to withhold funding from “objectionable” artwork.

Calling controversial artworks “a outrageous use of taxpayer’s funds,” California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita), who tried to kill the endowment’s entire budget, said, “I believe censorship is not the solution. The answer is getting government out of the arts.”

But Rohrabacher’s attempts were soundly rejected by a bipartisan coalition, lead by House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.). “Every civilized country in the world subsidizes the arts,” he said.

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A more serious challenge to the endowment’s budget came from Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.), who offered an amendment to delete $14 million from the budget to deliver “a severe slap on the wrist for an agency that has severely defaulted on its responsibility to the American people” for funding the Mapplethorpe photographs and Serrano’s “Piss Christ.”

Anne Murphy, executive director of the American Arts Alliance, called the outcome “a major victory, considering what the proposals on the floor were.” She said she had not been concerned that the proposal by Rohrabacher to cut out all funding for the national endowment would prevail. But she said arts observers were seriously worried when debate began Wednesday morning that Armey’s attempt to cut funding by 10% would be successful.

“I think there’s been a major showing of support for the arts on the House floor,” Murphy said. She said the symbolic $45,000 budget cut proposed by Stenholm reflected the fact that “Congress obviously felt a need to send a message that being careful is in order.” In debate on the various amendments, Stenholm characterized his approach as a “shot across the bow” of the endowment, while other congressmen criticized Armey’s approach as “a direct hit on the bridge.”

Throughout the dispute, Armey threatened to drum up support for a $6-million budget cut by taking the Mapplethorpe pictures to the floor of the House to shock members of Congress into voting his way.

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Armey and his colleagues brandished the Mapplethorpe catalogue on the floor of the House Wednesday, but declined to show the pictures--decried in terms ranging from “filth” to “pornography"--to the congressmen assembled.

However, congressmen voted 356-68 for the lesser cuts in the endowment’s budget.

Hugh Southern, the national endowment’s acting chairman, said the agency was “pleased at this bipartisan vote of confidence” that “strongly confirms the federal government’s commitment for support to the arts throughout the United States.”

Southern said the endowment believes the House action “reflects the views of most Americans that the public-private partnership in support of the arts has been enormously successful.” He added that the symbolic, $45,000 budget cut was a serious reminder of “congressional concerns about endowment procedures.” “Ultimately, all of these amendments take a piece out of American--that is, freedom of expression,” said Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.), urging that all the amendments be voted down because they were a form of censorship.

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Yates requested that debate over the role of the endowment be resumed when the Congress considers whether the agency should be re-authorized later in the year.

Backed by conservative Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), Armey has demanded in recent weeks a written guarantee that the endowment deny federal funds to artwork that “would be blatantly offensive to the vast majority of the American people.”

When the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington canceled the Mapplethorpe show last month, hoping to avoid a political controversy, the move only heightened the controversy. Subsequently, the Washington Project for the Arts picked up the Mapplethorpe exhibit.

Both arts endowment staffers and congressmen supportive of NEA have worked in past weeks to defuse the controversy by offering proposals to change the endowment’s procedure of allocating grants.

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But Armey rejected the endowment staffers’ proposal to re-emphasize standards of creative excellence in awarding endowment grants, and he was not dissuaded by the House Appropriations Committee’s alteration of the endowment’s process of awarding grants.

Spearheaded by Rep. Sidney Yates, (D-Ill.), the committee directed the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities to approve all grants allocated by intermediary organizations, which receive large blocks of federal funds to parcel out to individual recipients.

Currently, the intermediary organizations can award grants without prior approval from the main organization. Armey responded through a spokesman that the measure was “constructive,” but “we still have a way to go in addressing a solution.”

On July 8, Bush appointed John E. Frohnmayer as chairman to the beleaguered organization, which has remained leaderless since February. The nomination requires Senate confirmation.

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