Congress Nears Arts Funding Showdown

Times Staff Writer

With a sideshow staged by a Southern California congressman over, a House-Senate conference committee prepared Thursday for what most arts experts believe will be the climactic scene of a pivotal melodrama for the National Endowment for the Arts.

In key developments, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the conservative nemesis of the endowment, reportedly held a “cordial and friendly” meeting Wednesday afternoon with the lawyer/arts advocate President Bush has nominated to head the endowment.

And Thursday morning, the arts funding organization’s acting chairman, Hugh Southern--who arts insiders say guided the endowment’s creative operations for seven years--quit to take over as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Southern had served as acting chairman for six months, presiding over the most tempestuous period in the endowment’s 25-year history. His appointment at the Met becomes effective Nov. 1--shortly after Portland, Ore., attorney John E. Frohnmayer is expected to arrive to become the endowment’s permanent head. The Met’s top job had been vacant since the surprise resignation of general manager Bruce Crawford in November, 1988.

Disclosure of the meeting of Helms and Frohnmayer--which was neither publicly announced ahead of time nor officially disclosed afterward--and the resignation of Southern appeared to be a change of scene to a conference committee meeting room and, later, back on the floors of both chambers of Congress.


This drama may well decide the future of federal funding of the arts in the United States--all of this between now and about Oct. 15.

It is a play whose script hasn’t been completed and whose ending remains uncertain. But the apparently warm tone of the Helms-Frohnmayer meeting, which occurred as Frohnmayer called on the offices of key members of congress in a visit to Washington that began Monday, seemed to imply that--public posturing aside--Helms assumes there will be a viable arts endowment for Frohnmayer to run when he arrives in Washington.

Helms could not be reached for comment.

The two men did not talk about an amendment, successfully introduced by Helms in the Senate last month, to ban federal funding of “indecent” or “offensive” artworks. If the measure became law, most arts observers say a climate of censorship would result, in which the endowment would be hard-pressed to continue operating.

The Helms wording bans federal funds for art or any other activities financed by the Interior Department and related agencies that involves “obscene or indecent materials” or that “denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion” or “denigrates, debases or reviles a person, group or class of citizens.”

The meeting of Helms and Frohnmayer occurred as the House prepared for a 264-to-153 vote that killed an attempt by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita) to attach the Helms language to instructions to House members of a conference committee that will meet--perhaps as early as next week--to reach a compromise on a 1990 funding bill for the endowment.

The meeting of Frohnmayer and Helms and the departure of Southern--apparently a part of a genteel transition at the endowment leading up to the expected arrival of a new management team picked by Frohnmayer--were apparently hopeful signals that a resolution to the crisis may be possible.

In all, said Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), the key endowment supporter in the House, “I would assume that the fight is not over.”

Yet to come are these skirmishes:

The conference committee must navigate its way through a series of provisions added to the two different versions of the endowment funding bill, of which the Helms amendment is only one. Among other proposals is one that included Senate-added language making two private arts agencies caught up in the controversy ineligible for federal grants for five years.

One of the blacklisted arts groups organized a show that included a photograph depicting a crucifix immersed in urine. The other sponsored a touring show of work by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Other restrictions include a Senate-passed transfer of $400,000 from the endowment’s visual arts program to other endowment departments. The transfer, which some observers contend is intended to punish the endowment division most directly involved in the controversy, would cripple the visual arts program’s operations, critics contend.

Endowment insiders and other arts observers say they fear conference committee endowment supporters may be forced to accept the blacklisting and money transfer as the price of the beating back the Helms amendment. While Yates said Thursday such a compromise is “not even in the realm of possibility,” his ability to control the outcome of the committee deliberations is unclear.

Even if the conference committee strikes the Helms wording and the other restrictive provisions, yet to be seen is whether Helms in the Senate and Rohrabacher or other conservatives in the House would attempt to force a recorded floor vote to reject the compromise.

A settlement of the dispute over the funding bill would still leave conservatives with an opportunity to challenge the endowment’s activities during Frohnmayer’s confirmation, which is also scheduled to be completed by mid-October. While the committee with jurisdiction over the post is chaired by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and is thought to be sympathetic to the endowment, Helms and other conservatives could use floor debate on the confirmation as another opportunity to emphasize their dissatisfaction.

The entire controversy may be replayed early next year when both houses of Congress must process legislation to extend the endowment’s life by another five years. Some House observers believe conservatives will accept a conference committee defeat now and launch a more concerted attempt early in 1990 to kill the reauthorization.

Neither Helms nor his House sympathizers have disclosed their tactics. Yates said an attempt to force rejection of the conference committee report is a clear possibility. But a spokesman for Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who signed a letter protesting the two grants but has since tried to distance himself from the Helms undertaking, said prospects for a pitched battle over rejecting the conference committee report in the Senate seem remote.

“It would be extremely rare to get into a debate over rejecting the conference committee report over a Jesse Helms amendment,” the Wilson spokesman said, but, “with Helms, you never know.”

A deadlock over the conference committee report--which would mire all appropriations for such agencies as the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well--would force both houses to continue funding the Interior Department and related agencies under a continuing resolution. Such a resolution would retain 1989 funding levels.

Even longtime Washington arts observers are unsure how the situation will be resolved. Anne Murphy, executive director of the American Arts Alliance, said she expects it to be settled “in a reasoned way,” but declined to speculate on details.