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In the Eye of the Storm : Inside the North Carolina arts foundation that’s under fire for sponsoring a tour of ‘offensive’ artworks

In 1978, as a young, white Southern businessman with strong conservative feelings of alienation about the Democratic Party, F. Borden Hanes Jr. switched his registration to Republican.

There was one candidate for the U.S. Senate, in particular, whom Hanes found a politically kindred spirit and for whose reelection campaign Hanes organized a group of other like-minded young men. Hanes recalls that the group raised between $30,000 and $40,000.

Their man won. His name: Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

“I raised a pretty good slug of money for him,” said Hanes. When Helms ran for reelection again five years ago, Hanes worked behind the scenes in the campaign.

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“I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, but there are ideas in which I’m with him,” Hanes said, “such as free enterprise, foreign policy and economics. But on the abortion issue (and the larger) conservative social agenda, I just don’t identify with it at all.”

Under the circumstances, there is something strikingly ironic about watching Borden Hanes pick up a copy of a local newspaper that has published a color reproduction of a photograph titled “Piss Christ.” It is an image of a plastic crucifix immersed in a tank of the artist’s own urine.

The photograph, the work of New York photographer Andres Serrano, 38, was included in a show sponsored last year by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, of which Borden Hanes is chairman of the board.

SECCA (pronounced “SEEK-uh”) has been targeted by Helms in what most observers agree is the most profound crisis for the National Endowment for the Arts since the federal agency was founded nearly 25 years ago. (The NEA has helped fund SECCA.) Helms and a handful of Republican state legislators in Raleigh have seized on the depiction of the crucifix and the NEA’s funding of a show of photographs--some depicting homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes--by the late Robert Mapplethorpe to launch a campaign at the state and federal levels to ban public funding for offensive or indecent artworks.

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It was the controversial photograph that drew Hanes and the boards of SECCA and the old-money, blueblood foundation set up by the will of James G. Hanes, Borden’s granduncle, which provides about one-quarter of SECCA’s funding, into the political crisis.

Hanes had been discussing his past support for Helms while sitting in what was once the parlor in the main house on the former estate of James G. Hanes, who had run the family’s textile business. The house is now a part of the 32-acre, wooded campus-like setting for SECCA’s headquarters. Carefully, Hanes studied “Piss Christ,” in which the crucifix can be clearly identified in front of a reddish background. “I didn’t even look at the title initially,” he said. “It gave me a sense of peace. I felt good about it. I didn’t know at the time what it was submerged in.

“I thought it was a pretty innovative approach. That amber hue is not only very colorful, but it conveys a sense of passivity.”

He analyzed the photograph with a knowing eye. He says that, in the decade since his family urged him to join SECCA’s board, he has become an ardent fan of some of art’s most avant-garde work.

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“My vision would be that SECCA is a nationally recognized organization--one that the arts community in New York and Los Angeles can respect as on the cutting edge of contemporary art, with feeling for the artists and feeling for the communities that we serve.

“I’m hopeful that, in the long run, the flak is going to be beneficial.” He reasons that it will make people aware of SECCA, and those sympathetic to its cause may contribute money.

Redge Hanes, Borden Hanes’ cousin and chairman of the James G. Hanes Foundation, is even blunter about the need for artists to work free of political pressure. “If art doesn’t provoke, who needs it? You can go buy wallpaper from decorators.”

The crisis has probably brought an end to Borden Hanes’ support for Helms. But even today, Hanes said he could probably call Helms and get through. He has never placed the call.

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“I just think he’s got his mind made up,” Hanes said of Helms. “No matter what I would say, would he change his opinion becauses of something I would say? I think there is an element in his support structure that has really got his attention here. I can’t identify with it. I’m just going to have to think about whether I can vote for him again.”

Borden Hanes comes from one of the two old-line Winston-Salem families that are the social bedrock in this Forsyth County city of about 135,000. There are the Haneses, of the textile company family that gave the world Hanes T-shirts and underwear, and there is the family descended from the tobacco fortune of R. J. Reynolds.

Sitting in an overstuffed chair, Hanes, attired in a neat, dark suit, reflected on what has become the irony of this political affiliation. Hanes, 44, has shunned the limelight as the SECCA crisis has developed. But it has exploded around him, like it or not. The executive vice-president of an investment counseling firm with offices here and in Atlanta, Hanes finds himself and SECCA embroiled in a nasty political dispute that has made him personally uncomfortable and, to a certain extent, even divided his family.

Last year, the Awards in the Visual Arts, a pioneer program organized by SECCA’s director, Ted Potter, nearly a decade ago, included Serrano among the 10 people it recognized as the nation’s emerging artists. Among the works included by Serrano in the annual touring show that is one of the key rewards of winning the AVA (pronounced “AY-vuh”) was “Piss Christ.” The show that included Serrano’s photograph toured to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year. The current year’s show (without the photo), the eighth annual AVA exhibit, opens Saturday at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. The show has been seen in Atlanta and travels to Seattle and New York after its run in La Jolla closes Oct. 15.

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AVA seeks to break the stranglehold on art recognition held by large population centers such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles by dividing the country into 10 districts--each of which includes about the same number of artists. Thus, AVA Area 2 includes only Manhattan and Area 10 is only Southern California and Hawaii.

Each district produces one of the 10 annual winners. It is the only visual arts competition in the country in which someone working in North Dakota has the same opportunity to be selected for national recognition as an artist in SoHo or the West Village in New York City.

The NEA provides about $70,000 of the AVA program’s annual budget--a total of $412,000 last year.

Because of a bill working its way through the Congress, SECCA faces a pending five-year ban on eligibility for federal arts grants and narrowly averted an attempt in the North Carolina legislature to permanently bar the agency from grants by the North Carolina Arts Council.

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A House-Senate conference committee in Washington will try to reach a compromise on the NEA funding bill after Labor Day. Observers agree, however, that if the ban on public funding for offensive art survives, and if the blacklisting of SECCA and the Institute for Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (which organized a show of Mapplethorpe’s work) sticks, the endowment could not function.

Ironically, the actual “Piss Christ” photograph, 40 by 60 inches long, has never been exhibited in North Carolina, Potter said. Serrano’s submission was selected by a panel of jurors who viewed his work on slides. The exhibit in which the photo itself was included didn’t come to North Carolina. The original print has been sold by Stux Gallery in New York, which represents Serrano, to an anonymous private collector.

Helms did not respond to several requests for an interview. In May, however, Helms said in a Senate speech that criticized the AVA competition: “This program, supported by the National Endowment, is administered by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. They call it SECCA. I am sorry to say it is in my home state.”

North Carolina Republican State Sen. Michael Decker, who sponsored a bill to ban SECCA from state funding and who has been in close contact with Helms’ office on the issue, said the controversy over “Piss Christ” raises basic questions of the appropriateness of public money being used to finance arts programs.

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Decker, a high school history teacher who lives in Walkertown, a community near Winston-Salem, said he was drawn to the issue because he was repelled by the title and subject matter of the photograph--although he had not seen the image in color until a reporter showed him one from a catalogue in Raleigh last week.

“I think that if you are an individual citizen and you want to go to an art gallery, that would be one thing,” Decker said. “You have a choice. But taxpayers don’t have that choice. I don’t think it’s proper to force them to subsidize something they would find offensive.

“I think art has a place and I think we can fund it, but I’m certainly not for funding these horrendous things that are being put on us in the name of art.”

Decker said he supported a measure offered in the state senate after he introduced his own bill, which would ban state funding for religiously offensive art. He believes that just as civil rights laws were used to prohibit public money being used in support of racial segregation, the same principle can apply to keeping public support away from offensive artwork.

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“My main design is to prevent people from showing things that they call art that are offensive to the vast majority of Americans.”

Decker said the system he envisions would preclude an art museum that has state support for the salary of its curator, for instance, from accepting a privately supported traveling show that included offensive work.

“I don’t think that one person should try to formulate a definition of what is acceptable,” he said. "(But) I’d be glad to be on a group of people who would do that.”

The situation has so upset Borden Hanes that the muscles in his face tense noticeably when he talks about it. To him and his cousin Redge Hanes, a registered Democrat, the political tempest threatens to damage a program that SECCA, which was founded in 1956, has spent years organizing specifically to challenge the supremacy of the East Coast-West Coast art Establishment.

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And, the two cousins fear that continuing publicity could even endanger private financial support, which forms the backbone of SECCA’s $1.7-million annual budget. The North Carolina Arts Council contributes about $70,000. Besides the James G. Hanes Foundation’s contribution, the remaining support is raised from private sources--most of them local and regional contributors.

For several years the bulk of AVA’s funding was supplied by the Rockefeller and Equitable Foundations. This year, BMW of North America Inc., the luxury car importer, joined the two foundations as a sponsor and will host the New York showing of the 1989 work at the BMW Gallery in New York.

A couple years ago SECCA got a $300,000 NEA grant that required it to raise matching funds. A campaign that is just being concluded brought in $4 million to build the new exhibit center and provide financing for other SECCA programs.

Potter said that between 70,000 and 90,000 people attend shows at SECCA here. Another 500,000 view traveling shows--mostly in the South--that SECCA organizes.

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So far, said Redge Hanes, local people who support SECCA have remained supportive, but the board is increasingly concerned about financial fallout. “If you make an institution untouchable, then there are subtle movements of potential funders away from that institution for reasons they can’t even identify,” said Redge Hanes.

“If SECCA is denied federal funding because of one photograph, if that’s fair, then, my God, this country is into some very serious problems. Our foundation is not saying that we don’t personally find the title of that picture somewhat offensive.”

Redge Hanes, a member of the more politically liberal wing of the Hanes family and a registered Democrat, is closely associated with U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford, North Carolina’s junior senator. He is also on the boards of the American Arts Alliance and the American Council for the Arts, two of the largest arts advocacy groups in the country.

The ramifications of an attack on SECCA, just as the South is beginning to emerge as a nationally recognized center for the visual arts, make Redge Hanes so angry he can hardly contain himself.

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“Isn’t it ironic that the self-same institution that is trying to break the stereotype of the South is the one that they are trying to slaughter? A lot of people from the South really resent the kind of superior attitude that people in other parts of the country have held,” he said.

“Perhaps our mission is to eliminate the concept of regionalism. Art is one way to do that and possibly the only way. But if the McCarthys of this world can put us on a blacklist, then stand back, dude, because the next time the Mark Taper Forum (in Los Angeles) wants to put on a (politically or sexually controversial) play, if it’s offensive to some people, the response will be: Zap ‘em.”

“We’re in a very religious area here, where there are lot of born-again Christians,” Borden Hanes said. “To them, it’s very black and white. Even if we explain where Serrano is coming from, they don’t want to hear it.

“They’re just focusing on the crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. That’s all they can think about. They can’t think about what he is trying to say and express and (how) the commercialization of Christianity is very disturbing to him.

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“What I want to do now is to continue to support First Amendment rights and the freedom of expression, but to have a little bit more political savvy and put the Serrano thing behind us as far as this community is concerned.”

As Borden Hanes sat talking in the parlor, the sounds of heavy construction equipment could be heard outside.

The equipment is working to complete a new, $2.8-million, 23,000-square-foot addition to SECCA’s plant, which will more than double the art center’s exhibition space and include a 300-seat recital hall, sculpture terraces and badly needed storage space. The new structure is to be dedicated next April.

Though it is a major exhibition center that organizes as many as 50 shows a year--including those here and others that tour in North Carolina and the rest of the South--SECCA does not have a permanent collection. The majority of its 21 full-time employees, including Potter, the executive director, are themselves working artists.

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Most works included in shows at the SECCA complex here are offered for sale, providing a badly needed commercial outlet for regional artists who have difficulty breaking into the gallery system dominated by New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. SECCA also sponsors a regional arts competition called the Southeast Seven that provides grants of its own.

SECCA’s arts education program is relied on heavily throughout the state. “It’s an incredible organization,” said Mary Regan, director of the North Carolina Arts Council in Raleigh. SECCA, said Regan, has helped develop interest in the arts throughout the state--to a degree people outside the region might find surprising in the South.

“I could take you out in this state to any community and I believe I would shatter your stereotype about what North Carolinians want,” Regan said. “That stereotype would be that North Carolinians in small towns and rural areas are not that interested in the arts.”

Potter’s vision is that SECCA is already--and can become more of--a force for change in a larger attempt to force the arts Establishment away from what he calls “the fly-over effect, where they go from New York to Los Angeles, look down (and see) nothing.

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“This whole ‘Hudson River mentality’ drives me crazy. I’ve been saying for 25 years that there are artists worth looking at and getting recognition everywhere.” The Hudson River, which separates Manhattan from New Jersey, has what Potter calls a mythological influence, “that if an artist chooses to live on the wrong side of the Hudson River it’s because he isn’t good enough to live on the right side. You can’t tell me that the (arts Establishment) doesn’t still believe that.

“We’re trying to accomplish (that change) and now this happens.”

Potter believes that our society doesn’t “want to admit that our artists are serious. We want our artists to be perceived to be like self-indulgent children. It’s amusing to have them at parties occasionally and we like them being just slightly naughty.

“If artists are perceived as focusing on critical issues of what we do, we don’t like that a bit. But whenever a society is dealing in depth with heartfelt critical issues, art responds. Some people get annoyed as hell if the artists want to come up with some kind of strong comment.”

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