Newport Museum Board Protests Anti-Obscenity Pledge : Censorship: Trustees initially agreed to strike the National Endowment for the Arts anti-obscenity clause but now say they may instead send a letter of protest.


Newport Harbor Art Museum trustees, who announced last week that they will strike a controversial anti-obscenity pledge from National Endowment for the Arts grant forms before signing them, now say they instead may attach a letter to the forms noting their non-compliance with the pledge, according to a museum spokeswoman.

An NEA spokesman said the agency has yet to formulate responses to either form of protest, both of which apparently are unprecedented in Orange County.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 30, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 30, 1990 Orange County Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Museum protest--Newport Harbor Art Museum trustees voted Thursday to either strike a controversial anti-obscenity pledge from National Endowment for the Arts grant forms or to send letters to the NEA noting their non-compliance with the pledge. Because of incorrect information provided to The Times, it was reported that the trustees initially favored striking the language and only later considered the alternative form of protest.

Meanwhile, museum spokeswoman Maxine Gaiber announced, the museum has been notified of a $20,000 NEA grant for purchase of works for its permanent collection. Two other NEA grants totaling about $80,000 are pending. Action is expected in the next few weeks.

The NEA is requiring anyone accepting one of its grants to sign a form acknowledging 29 terms and conditions, one of which is that the recipient will not produce or show artworks that could be judged obscene and that do not meet undefined standards of artistic excellence. Conservative Congress members, including Republican Dana Rohrabacher, part of whose district is in Orange County, have been attacking the NEA for 14 months in the wake of grants for a handful of allegedly obscene artworks.


Thursday, asserting that they “can’t afford not to accept the grants, but (also) can’t afford in any good conscience to accept the anti-obscenity language,” the Newport Harbor trustees voted to strike the language from the forms before signing them, Gaiber said. Artists and arts officials objecting to the language have argued that it puts limits on artistic expression.

Late Friday, Gaiber said trustees subsequently felt that instead of striking the language, they might attach a protest letter to the forms. The letter would state that the museum guarantees to abide by all the grant provisions except the obscenity section.

Gaiber said she does not feel that attaching a letter, instead of striking language, would be a softening of the trustees’ position. If either form of protest prompts the NEA to withhold money, Gaiber said, “I think we take the consequences, whatever they may be.”

The endowment has not announced firm policies for dealing with grant protests.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles announced last week that along with each NEA grant it receives, it would be sending a letter similar to that envisioned by the Newport Harbor trustees. “Art, by its very nature, often involves risk and challenge to the status quo,” said a statement by the MOCA board of trustees released Friday. “Federal support through the NEA is important to MOCA,” the statement continued. “It is crucial that NEA continue as it began--as an institution that honors our society through the arts.”

The NEA instituted the pledge requirement after Rohrabacher and other congressional conservatives forced inclusion last year of language in the endowment’s 1990 appropriation bill that prohibits federal support of obscene work unless it meets high standards of artistic excellence.

In recent weeks, at least two grant recipients have turned down NEA financial support to protest the restrictive language. And last week, the New School for Social Research in New York City filed suit against the endowment, seeking a court order barring the NEA from enforcing the provision.

NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer was sharply questioned at a recent NEA budget hearing by Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), a key congressional arts supporter, over the NEA’s decision to institute the anti-obscenity certification, even though Congress did not require it.

The decision to file strong protests over the wording--but still accept NEA support--places the Newport Harbor museum and MOCA in a larger category of protesting recipients that have apparently responded to initiatives within the arts community.

Some arts leaders have urged recipients not to turn down funding, arguing that the action would play into the hands of Rohrabacher, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and other conservatives in Congress who might seize on the refusals as proof that arts centers don’t need NEA money after all.

Staff writer Allan Parachini in Los Angeles contributed to this story.