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NEA Faces New Controversy in New York Show : Art: National Endowment seeks voluntary return of $10,000 to quiet criticism.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A risky new National Endowment for the Arts controversy--emanating from an art show focusing on the AIDS epidemic and containing sexually explicit gay photographs--has broken out here even as the agency struggles to recover from a bruising political fight.

Neither the NEA nor the New York City artist organization sponsoring the show, scheduled to open Nov. 16, would discuss the dispute in detail. But The Times learned national endowment attorneys have contacted a lawyer representing the gallery--apparently to try to persuade the organization to voluntarily return $10,000 in endowment funding for it.

NEA chairman John E. Frohnmayer has also met privately with Susan Wyatt, director of Artists Space, the Manhattan gallery and arts activist organization, to urge that the endowment’s name be removed from publicity materials about the show and that the show’s catalogue include a disclaimer distancing the work from the NEA. Under existing federal law, the endowment cannot order the return of grant money, but it can disassociate itself from a piece of work or exhibit.

The show has a total budget of about $30,000. Artists Space, one of the nation’s best known artist-run gallery and support organizations, has received $199,000 in NEA grants in the last three years and is highly reputed in the NEA’s museum and visual arts programs.

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The Artists Space show is titled “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing.” It involves the work of 23 different artists and was organized by Nan Goldin, a prominent New York City artist and photographer. The show, which is scheduled to remain on view until Jan. 6, was planned to coincide with a daylong Dec. 1 national program called “Visual AIDS,” in which museums and arts groups around the country will sponsor events oriented toward the AIDS epidemic.

Discussions between Frohnmayer and Wyatt continued through the weekend, without final resolution. Wyatt scheduled an emergency meeting of the board of Artists Space for this week, but she said categorically that the gallery would not cancel or alter the exhibition.

The situation underscored widespread fears among arts observers that the political fight over control of content of federally funded artworks could lead to a new era of hypersensitivity and fear that could influence subject matter of work funded by the agency.

But the dispute also appeared to represent the introduction of a new tactic by artists determined to resist the imposition of censorship standards. Wyatt said that, while she regretted having to involve the NEA in a fresh dispute, she felt it was important for artists and arts groups to actively resist any chilling of freedom of expression in the arts.

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In the original application for the grant, submitted in November, 1988, Artists Space described the show as intended to treat the AIDS crisis and “focus on three areas: sexuality, recovery from drug use (and) death.” The application noted that “the issue of sexuality deals with the sublimation of sexuality through art or art as safe sex.”

The extraordinary attempt to either distance the endowment from the content of the show--which is said to include homoerotic sexually explicit pictures and text materials that criticize a variety of public officials, specifically including Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)--has developed as Frohnmayer has struggled to contain political damage to the arts agency and resume normal operations.

In comments during a meeting of the National Council on the Arts, the NEA’s advisory body, Frohnmayer confirmed that a delicate negotiation was under way in regard to the content of “Witnesses,” precipitated by intense fears within the endowment that the episode could rekindle the political firestorm that enveloped the NEA over the summer.

“I don’t want to comment on that. We are really communicating actively,” Frohnmayer said of the situation. “This is a very difficult situation. It has the potential of being as politically sensitive as some of the other grants have been. We are trying to manage it.”

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The other sensitive grants to which Frohnmayer referred were the basis of the political tumult that arose starting last April. Helms and other conservatives in Congress objected to the subject matter content of shows involving the work of two photographers, including sadomasochistic and homoerotic images of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS last March. The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, an AIDS organization endowed by proceeds from Mapplethorpe’s estate, is underwriting publication of the catalogue for “Witnesses.”

The political dispute resulted in restrictions in the 1990 NEA funding bill that prohibit grants to support work that is obscene unless the work meets high standards of artistic excellence. The grant for the New York City show, however, involves money from the NEA’s 1989 budget that was disbursed in July and is not subject to the content restrictions.

It was learned that Wyatt brought the subject matter content of the “Witnesses” show to the attention first of officials of the NEA’s museum division, which funded the show, and then of Frohnmayer personally. As a result of the notification by Wyatt, Frohnmayer sent Andrew Oliver Jr., acting director of the NEA’s museum program, to New York to personally inspect work to be included in the show.

Wyatt’s decision to warn Frohnmayer of a potentially difficult grant--of which he might not have otherwise become personally aware until the New York show opened--was part of what she said was a deliberate strategy to keep the NEA chairman from being blind-sided by developments of which he had no knowledge. However, Wyatt also said her tactics were intended to provoke a confrontation with the principle of federal control of arts subject matter.

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She said she initially developed the strategy at a meeting in Minneapolis three weeks ago of the National Assn. of Artist Organizations. She advocated that every museum and arts group take deliberate action to take issue with the proposition that federally-imposed standards of any kind should dictate the content of art.

“I want the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in New York City) and the Museum of Modern Art (involved,)” Wyatt said. “This is why I have done this.” Wyatt and Charlotte Murphy, director of the National Assn. of Artist Organizations, met privately during the national council meeting with Wendy Luers, an artist and arts patron who is a member of the national advisory body. Luers is married to William Luers, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In another development, Frohnmayer and other arts endowment officials conceded that they were having difficulty drawing up written standards to put the 1990 content restrictions officially into place. In the draft of a letter intended to be sent to all NEA grant recipients, Frohnmayer urged grant recipients to cooperate with the endowment and to avoid actions that the arts agency’s opponents could construe as deliberately provocative.

“You may or may not like or agree with the new law,” the letter draft said. “But it is still the law.” The draft was released at the national council meeting.

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In an interview, Frohnmayer said endowment officials had concluded of the pitfalls of implementing the content-control standards that “it’s a whole lot harder in the specific to make these decisions than it is in the abstract.”

“When you get the first one (arts project likely to be politically troublesome) coming down the pike,” he said, “it really is crunch time. It’s terribly, terribly tough. I don’t think any of us were satisfied that the task is in hand or that it’s going to be easy.”


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