National Arts Council Divided on Political Battle Plans


The National Council on the Arts ended its first meeting of 1990--a year likely to become the most pivotal in its 25-year history--on Saturday unable to agree on the dimensions of the political threats it faces and how to respond to them.

In fact, discussions throughout the council's two-day session here returned repeatedly to fundamental questions of how the body, which is the advisory board to the National Endowment for the Arts, sees its role in determining public policy in the arts in the United States.

And while these questions--over such issues as what role the endowment's council may properly take in persuading members of Congress to extend the endowment's legislative life and what strings on artistic and creative policy Congress may attach, if any--were raised repeatedly, none of them was answered.

The year is widely perceived as crucial to the arts endowment and the arts council because Congress must act to renew the legal mandate of the endowment, which is due to expire later in 1990, in an election year climate of intense scrutiny over the appropriateness--in terms of subject matter--of artworks the endowment funds. Conservatives are expected to attempt to impose rigid statutory limits to the kind of artworks the federal government can support.

Last year, the controversy resulted in the first legal controls over the content of NEA-funded artworks since the agency was founded in 1965. The endowment's current appropriations bill bans support of obscene art unless it meets high standards of artistic excellence.

Yet as the arts endowment prepares to face the political challenges of the legislative process called reauthorization, its 24-member governing body has this additional political baggage:

* It will see during 1990 the expirations of the terms of 10 of its members. Endowment Chairman John E. Frohnmayer told council members over the weekend that no list of nominees to President Bush for new positions has been drawn up and that, in fact, criteria for selecting new council members remain undefined.

* Simultaneously, Frohnmayer and some members of the council--which must vote on every grant the endowment makes but whose recommendations on grants and other policy can legally be overridden by Frohnmayer--have expressed concern that the arts council has lost a balance it once had between members who are prominent, established artists and those who represent the viewpoints of arts policy-makers, arts executives and arts patrons.

Since 1965, the council has included such prominent artists as actors Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston, conductor Leonard Bernstein, painter Richard Diebenkorn, jazz musician Duke Ellington and violinist Isaac Stern.

Today, however, only about a quarter of the council membership includes people whose principal background is in the creative arts. Only two--painter Helen Frankenthaler and dancer/dance artistic director Arthur Mitchell--are practicing artists of broad public note. In discussions throughout the weekend, it was clear that the existing membership of the arts council is deeply divided over how to respond to the endowment's political challenges this year--and even over whether facing the political crisis head-on is appropriate. Robert Garfias, an ethnomusicologist on the faculty of UC Irvine, noted that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita) raised questions on the House floor just last week over the endowment's twice-removed, indirect role in supporting a risque performance by a New York artist named Annie Sprinkle at the Kitchen, a New York arts center.

"We are going to have some surprises," said Garfias of the Rohrabacher attack. "I'm very uncomfortable (about things like the implied co-mingling of funds that supported) Annie Sprinkle. I'm worried about things we don't know about."

But council members like author/editor Joseph Epstein resisted confronting the discomfiting merger of practicing art and practicing politics--despite the ferocity of the controversy that gripped the endowment last year. "Panic has set in" because of the political pressure, Epstein argued. But he argued that the arts council lacks the political sophistication or legislative mandate to enter political combat with experienced congressional foes. Epstein and several council members expressed bewilderment about how to meet the political challenge--and resisted proposals by other members that the arts council cast itself in a quasi-lobbying role, carrying its battle directly to congressional leaders.

In the end, the arts council reached no decisions on political strategy, despite warningsfrom members like Garfias that "the next battle is around the corner. It's going tocome."

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