Government and the Arts : The Man Who Would Be Arts King

Times Staff Writer

At a pace more appropriate to a forced march than a gallery tour, John E. Frohnmayer was showing a small group of visitors the 20th-Century art collection that adorns the two floors of his downtown law firm.

As might be expected of the man who is to appear in Washington today for the opening of his confirmation hearings as President Bush’s nominee to head the National Endowment for the Arts, Frohnmayer was a member of the law firm’s art selection committee when the works were bought.

In almost perfunctory fashion, he recited the names and backgrounds of the mainly Oregonian artists. On reaching “Yuba 4,” a tall copper-clad redwood work by sculptor Mel Schuler in the 17th-floor reception area, he suddenly laughed heartily--an unabashed, genuine laugh from deep down in the gut.


Given the nature of his nomination and the ugly political crisis in which the national endowment finds itself over its indirect support of artworks that some call obscene or sacrilegious, he had realized that he might be well advised to issue a disclaimer.

“There’s a very phallic piece down there,” Frohnmayer said finally to his guests. And then he laughed again.

He is like that. He is a genuinely informal yet deeply introspective attorney--who happens to also hold a degree in theology. He is a veteran of the Vietnam War, rows competitively on the local Willamette River, has studied voice extensively and once had the option, which he declined, of pursuing an operatic career. He seems a man of consummately lowbrow exterior but highbrow insides.

He is a moderate Republican--though he insists he detests political labels--whose personal tastes in music span an entire range of classical to Broadway and 1960s folk, and in art favor the abstract over the representational. Politically, he is close to Oregon’s Republican senators, Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield, and to liberal Democratic Rep. Les AuCoin too.

Sitting in his 18th-floor office with a view straight out at the west hills of Portland, where he lives with his wife, Leah, and two teen-age sons--one of whom is in college and the other a high school senior--Frohnmayer paused for a second to focus on this most crucial current question for not only the endowment’s chairman but the organization as a whole.

“My response to people who argue that the federal government has no legitimate role in supporting the arts is that we’re not here just to be protected,” he said finally. “The government doesn’t exist just to put an impregnable ring of missiles around the United States, because there has to be something in the middle there--something we’re protecting.

“And that is the ability of Americans to exercise artistic freedom. To learn through the arts that there are a number of different ways to look at things, which is the fundamental basis of a cooperative society.”

He has met with Bush only once--briefly--before being nominated for the post in July. But he expects Bush to support the arts endowment enthusiastically--if only because, at a funding level of about $171 million next year, it represents a cheap way to make a highly visible political impression.

He is unashamedly an Oregonian. He makes no apologies for being a stranger to the Beltway--the highway system that more or less surrounds Washington. He emphasizes his respect for the essential role of major East Coast cultural institutions but sees the arts as much less elitist than bluebloods of what could be called the nation’s Ahhts Establishment.

“The fact that I’m not from any of those places (in the Northeast corridor including Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston) and the fact that I am from Portland, Ore., I think will do something toward changing the perception” of the arts endowment as an elitist preserve, he said.

“But I’m certainly not unmindful of the major, high-budget institutions in the country. They are absolutely critical in terms of our long-term artistic health.”

With his brother Dave, who is Oregon’s attorney general, Frohnmayer started a singing group called Frohn’s Tunes that performs popular songs with lyrics rewritten as political spoofs each year at a forum for Oregon Republicans called the Dorchester Conference.

A recent example was a devastating satire on the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whom Dave Frohnmayer had played a large role in running out of the state. Sung to the tune “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” the chorus went:

“Give me a Rolls

Give me a Royce

The life of a guru is choice.”

But behind this studied informality, there is a side of John Frohnmayer that believes passionately in the federal government’s role as a catalyst for the arts. It is what first led him to seek the job eight years ago from then-President Ronald Reagan, who chose a career bureaucrat, Frank Hodsoll, instead.

If a swing through Washington last week, in which Frohnmayer met with 20 key members of Congress, is any indication, the Portland trial lawyer and First Amendment expert can expect an easy time in his confirmation. He even had a cordial half-hour meeting with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), author of an amendment to the national endowment’s 1990 appropriation bill that would ban federal support for any art that is “offensive, indecent or sacrilegious.”

In an interview here this week, Frohnmayer declined to describe the encounter with Helms, but the senator is said to understand that his amendment may not survive a House-Senate conference committee.

Frohnmayer has likewise been circumspect in discussing details of the overall political unpleasantness surrounding the endowment. He has adhered to a strategy that relies on him keeping his thoughts about such things private until senators who vote on his confirmation have an opportunity to ask such questions themselves.

However, Helms also is said to have made it clear that he believes he has increased his own political capital by pressing his campaign against the endowment. Helms, who did not respond to calls seeking his comment, is said to believe that, while there will be a viable national endowment for Frohnmayer to run when he takes over next month, the period of confrontation with conservatives over what is--and is not--appropriate subject matter for government-supported art may have only just begun.

“We in the endowment need to mend our fences,” Frohnmayer said. “By that I mean with the Congress. And we need to let them know that we are an agency that is responsive and responsible and is really going to do something for our society which is exemplary.

“I don’t think one necessarily has to agree with every criticism that’s leveled, but I do think that one has to take (the criticism) seriously and responsibly. Where we really need work is in emphasizing the positive of the agency.”

Frohnmayer, 47, was born in Medford, Ore., one of three sons and a daughter of a lawyer father and music teacher/arts patron mother. Dave and John Frohnmayer became lawyers--though John flirted with a religious calling, attending Union Theological Seminary in New York as a Rockefeller Fellow. He holds a master’s degree in Christian ethics from the University of Chicago.

Frohnmayer’s two other siblings, Mira and Philip, are musicians and music teachers. But music has been a common vehicle for the whole family. John Frohnmayer mastered the guitar as a teen-ager and has kept up his voice instruction throughout his legal career. Dave Frohnmayer, who describes himself as the least accomplished musician in the family, still managed to win a celebrity “battle of the batons” benefit for the Eugene Symphony.

Although John Frohnmayer’s theological background has drawn little attention, it may turn out to be directly relevant to the endowment crisis. One of the works that got the endowment into trouble was an image of a photograph, “Piss Christ,” of a crucifix immersed in urine, by New York photographer Andres Serrano.

Frohnmayer has consistently refused to discuss his personal feelings about this image or the homoerotic and sadomasochistic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, which make up the other immediate cause of the controversy. But it is known that, regarding “Piss Christ,” his personal theological reading of the image is that it is not sacrilegious but could be seen as a legitimate commentary on the brutal persecution of early Christians that the cross first symbolized.

He is said to find the body of Mapplethorpe’s work--most of which was well-received art photography--a significant contribution to the medium but to question the choice of subject matter of the photographer who died of AIDS this year at 43.

Frohnmayer served in the Navy aboard the light cruiser Oklahoma City off the coast of Vietnam in the late 1960s. A lawyer in Eugene and then in Portland beginning in 1972, he has specialized in civil litigation. Frohnmayer has a special interest in First Amendment law and has represented Oregon newspapers and television stations.

He was a member of the Oregon Arts Commission for seven years and president for four. He is on the board of Chamber Music Northwest; has sung in New York, Chicago and Palo Alto; directed a sculpture competition in Eugene in 1974, and was on a committee to select sculpture for a new Capitol in Salem in 1977.

It was the Capitol sculpture that may have been Frohnmayer’s first brush with the rough and tumble of politics, Dave Frohnmayer recalls. At the time, Dave was a state representative who had opposed financing of the sculpture John had helped to choose. This development was not well received in Salem, but John defused the controversy by inviting an articulate sculptor to testify about acquisition of the artwork.

“A strength of his is his real steadiness,” Dave Frohnmayer said of his brother. “He’s very cool under fire. He has a very engaging sense of self-effacing humor. He’s not full of himself and he’s not going to be one to lose his cool at the first setback.”

These are attributes that likely will be important in John Frohnmayer’s tenure at the national endowment.

“I think he’ll have a real good sense of where he wants to end up,” said Dave Frohnmayer. “He has a good sense of vision and goal-setting. That’s very important instead of just blowing in the political wind.”

John Frohnmayer will need all of those skills in his new job; he is all but certain to be confirmed by the Senate. He will take over a demoralized endowment wracked by political crisis and decimated by a series of resignations and imminent resignations of key staff members.

By the time Frohnmayer is expected to arrive next month, the national endowment will be without its deputy chairman, director of policy and planning, general counsel, director of administration and the heads of four of its programs, including the crucially important theater and music divisions.

Frohnmayer is expected to move quickly to shape his own new management team--which, because of the extent of the vacancies, is expected to reshape the direction of the national endowment virtually overnight. He talks about a new era of openness and responsiveness at the arts endowment--apparently, endowment insiders say, after Frohnmayer received a torrent of complaints in his visits to Capitol Hill last week that the agency is stuffy, aloof, arrogant and just plain snotty.

“I would hope that the endowment would be a very open place,” he said. “I think accessibility is often a problem if you’re a federal agency. I’d even like us to have an 800 (toll-free telephone) number and to see if there are ways we can be more visible around the country.”

Frohnmayer is also expected to move almost immediately to start exploring financing methods the endowment has not previously attempted. He noted that the endowment has never attempted to function as a true endowment would. He said his own analysis of the endowment’s enabling legislation has led him to believe it could accept private donations, make loans and perhaps even hold investments--all operating tools common to endowments.

Clearly, Frohnmayer believes he can overcome the political and management problems and get on with his vision of the arts endowment’s role in American society. It’s an inclusionary, grass-roots, even populist arts philosophy.

“One dream scenario,” he said, “would be that, in every community in the country, there are imagination celebrations and art teachers in the schools who really turn kids on to creativity and music teachers who can work with the kids as alternatives to gang life.

“The objective is to see the U.S. as a nation where people are really practicing the arts. It’s not corny to sing. It’s not wimpy to paint. You shouldn’t get derision if you do ballet. There needs to be a sense that creativity and the arts are normal things to do. That’s the ultimate of a creative society.”