NEA Chairman’s Talk to Cover Topic of Obscene Art


The chairman of the beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts will speak at an open forum Saturday at the Lyceum Theatre.

John Frohnmayer, appointed by President Bush last year, will talk about the controversy over reauthorizing the National Endowment for the Arts, said Victoria Hamilton, executive director of the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. The forum, which will include public questions and comment, will be held at 3:30 p.m. in the theater at 79 Horton Plaza.

Hamilton said the federal arts agency provides grants to San Diego arts organizations, the city arts commission and individual artists. Last year, San Diego received 28 NEA grants totaling $1.1 million, said Romalyn Tilghman, regional representative for the NEA in Long Beach.

The NEA has been mired in controversy since last year when it awarded grants totaling $45,000 to two touring art exhibits: a show of photographs that included homoerotic and sexually explicit images by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and a show of works by award-winning artists that included an Andres Serrano photograph of a crucifix dipped in urine.


The endowment’s $171-million budget for 1990 was amended by conservatives in Congress to outlaw funding of artworks the NEA determines to be obscene, and requires grantees to take an anti-obscenity oath. In the uproar after the restrictions, the University of Iowa Press and New York theater producer Joseph Papp turned down $62,000 in NEA money. The New School for Social Research in New York City has sued the endowment to try to gain a court order to strike down on constitutional grounds the anti-obscenity oath. The provision requires grantees to certify in writing that they will not produce obscene work.

This year, the NEA is faced with seeking congressional reauthorization and approval of its 1991 budget. The agency is usually reauthorized for five years, but, faced with a growing move among conservatives in Congress to clamp down on what some view as government funding of obscene art, the White House is seeking a cooling-off period. Instead of a five-year renewal, the White House asked Congress last Wednesday to reauthorize the NEA, without any restrictions, for one to three years while a commission reviews the agency’s grant-making procedures.

The endowment’s authorization is set to expire Sept. 30, the end of the 1990 fiscal year. However, it is unclear whether Congress will have time to consider the White House request and the proposed $175-million budget for 1991 before recessing for week beginning July 2.

Frohnmayer, the NEA’s fifth chairman, is also in San Diego to give a keynote speech at a convention of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies. The service organization is a coalition of municipal and nonprofit arts organizations, arts leaders and corporate representatives, Hamilton said. The convention, June 15-19, is expected to draw more than 500 arts leaders from the United States, Mexico and Canada.


Frohnmayer is former chairman of the Oregon Arts Commission and was most recently a partner in a Portland law firm. He also served as chairman of the screening committee to select art for the Oregon Capitol. His performing background as a singer includes appearances in musical productions in New York, Chicago, California and Oregon.