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Group Plans Anti-Rohrabacher Ads

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Armed with a new poll that shows strong public support for the National Endowment for the Arts, a liberal constitutional rights group announced Thursday that it plans to launch a newspaper ad campaign against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita), an outspoken leader of anti-arts-endowment forces in the House.

The new survey--1,200 people were questioned by telephone between March 14 and 26--shows that 61% agree with the NEA and the Bush Administration that Congress should not place controls on the content of artworks the NEA may support.

Rohrabacher, whose district includes northwest Orange County, has issued periodic broadsides against the NEA for funding exhibits and performances that he has characterized as pornographic and sacrilegious, and last year he led an unsuccessful fight to eliminate all federal funding to the agency.

In response, People for the American Way, the group plans to run ads against Rohrabacher in four major newspapers in his district: The Los Angeles Times, Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Orange County Register and the South Bay Daily Breeze. Michael Hudson, western vice president of the organization, said the ads depict an empty picture frame over the headline “Is This the Only Kind of Art Rep. Rohrabacher Would Be Happy With?”

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“Americans overwhelmingly reject censorship of the arts and support the NEA,” said Hudson. “Rep. Rohrabacher has taken the leading role in the House calling for the abolishment of the NEA. If we are to win this battle, we must energize and mobilize the creative community here in Los Angeles.”

Hudson said the group has just begun raising the estimated $25,000 it will need to pay for the ads.

Rohrabacher welcomed the announcement.

“I would hope that they run as many ads as they can,” Rohrabacher said. “My constituents don’t want federal dollars to go to sacrilegious or obscene art. . . . The more the voters understand the central issue at hand, the happier I am.”

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But Rohrabacher criticized the People for the American Way poll for focusing on censorship rather than government funding of offensive material, which he sees as the heart of the NEA issue.

“If someone asks me if I’m in favor of censorship, I emphatically say ‘No,’ ” Rohrabacher said. “I don’t think anyone should be prevented from seeing what they want to see or painting what they want to paint . . . on their own time and their own dime. But if you get a government subsidy, that’s another question.”

The survey also found that 93% of Americans believe the public has a right to view controversial artworks, and 80% disagree with the contention that nudity in art is usually pornographic.

However, a majority of respondents--53%--agreed that art should be censored if it offends a majority of people, and 86% said art galleries should notify parents if work they display is unsuitable for viewing by children. A total of 74% agreed that censorship in general “is not the American way,” and 81% opposed laws limiting freedom of artistic expression.

Only 30% of the respondents in the new nationwide poll believe government funding for avant-garde art should be stopped because some of it is controversial, and 66% disagreed with the contention that Congress should cut off funding for controversial art projects or shows.

The poll was sponsored by People for the American Way group and conducted by Research & Forecasts Inc., a New York opinion survey consultant. People for the American Way is a civil libertarian group founded in 1980 by television producer Norman Lear.

With support for federal government funding of the arts holding steady at about 2 to 1--nearly the same ratio as in a similar poll conducted by The Times last fall--the new survey results show that the months of controversy over arts funding in Washington and elsewhere has attracted the attention of a majority of Americans.

While three-quarters of a sample of 2,217 Americans last September said they had never heard of the controversy, 57% now say they are familiar with it. Moreover, the political battle has boosted the arts endowment’s name recognition rate to 76%--the same proportion familiar with the endowment’s key congressional opponent, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

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The new opinion poll was released simultaneously at press briefings in Washington and Los Angeles.

The new survey also found that:

Nationwide, attendance at arts events is more popular than going to live sporting events, with 72% of respondents reporting attending arts events in the last year, contrasted with 53% who went to sporting events. Arts attendance averaged six events per year, contrasted to 4.1 for sports.

A total of 68% endorse the concept of government funding of the arts, with 30% opposed and 2% unsure. However, 60% also agreed that the NEA should be held responsible for the content of artworks it supports, and a slim majority--51%--agreed that artists who get government grants should “sign an oath regarding the content of their art.”

The arts endowment had a higher positive opinion rating than Helms--30% versus 11%. A total of 69% disagreed with the notion that the NEA is a waste of taxpayers’ money.


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