NEA Hardens Its Position on Anti-Obscenity Pledge : Arts: Some critics say that maintaining the restriction may mean continued rejection of grants by angry artists and groups.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

National Endowment for the Arts will retain a controversial requirement that grantees sign an anti-obscenity pledge, despite the rejection, or threatened rejection, of more than $1.3 million in 1990 grants.

The NEA and the Justice Department are drafting language to clarify the obscenity guidelines, according to Julie Davis, the arts endowment's general counsel, but she said the certification--which some arts groups have called the equivalent of an anti-obscenity loyalty oath--will remain in place for the rest of the 1990 fiscal year, which ends in October.

In New York, however, a representative of the New School for Social Research, which has sued the NEA to force the rescinding of what critics contend is an anti-obscenity oath, said that issuing guidelines without striking the anti-obscenity language may not stem a continuing stream of rejection of NEA money by enraged artists and arts organizations.

In a related development, a Senate committee canceled a scheduled Wednesday meeting that was to finalize the Senate version of a bill extending the legislative authorization of the NEA. The Senate Education and Labor Committee now can not take the matter up until at least July 11.

Sources familiar with the situation characterized the cancellation as commonplace in the process of editing bills in committee. But these sources said the decision to cancel the Wednesday morning session appeared to indicate that negotiations among four senators central to the NEA debate were far from producing a consensus proposal.

The four senators--Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Orrin Hatch of Utah--are attempting to fashion a plan on such diverse issues as the wording of an expected restriction on the kinds of art the NEA can support, and the length of the extension of the endowment's lifetime, expected to be between one and five years.

A source familiar with the Senate negotiations said the talks are intended to develop a bipartisan strategy for the NEA reauthorization bill. Kennedy and Pell are moderate-to-liberal Democrats, while Kassebaum and Hatch are moderate-to-conservative Republicans. Other sources characterized the discussions as an attempt to solve the intense NEA political controversy--anticipating expected opposition to any consensus approach by conservatives led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

The NEA's Davis made her comments in a Tuesday afternoon interview. It was one of the first times a top NEA official has discussed the gravity of protest among artists and arts groups that has led to rejection, or threatened rejection, of grants by nine individuals or organizations, totaling $272,050.

In addition, UCLA and the University of California system disclosed last week that top administrators are considering a proposal--originated at UCLA--for the entire UC system to boycott NEA funding this year. The UC total could be as much as $1.1 million. At least three Southern California arts institutions are reported to be actively reviewing their postures on NEA grant acceptance.

"If we want to move toward a common resolution of this very difficult problem, reason has to return to the discourse," Davis said. "One of the unfortunate developments out of this whole controversy is that common sense has evaporated."

Davis made the comments in the wake of the filing of court papers in the New School lawsuit in New York that disclosed the NEA intends to issue obscenity guidelines, not later than July 13--an attempt to clarify controversial language inserted by Congress in the endowment's 1990 appropriation bill. The language bars federal support for obscene work that does not meet high standards for artistic merit.

Earlier this year, Davis and NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer included the wording of the law in the NEA's form grant letter and began to require grantees to sign a certification that they would comply with the obscenity provision.

Davis said, however, that though the guidelines are being drafted, the obscenity certification--which has directly caused the spate of grant rejections--will not be rescinded. "It is my hope that some of the confusion that has arisen (over the obscenity certification process) will be settled by the issuance of these guidelines," Davis said.

The legislation including the obscenity wording only applies to 1990, though most observers expect conservatives in Congress to push successfully for restrictive language at least as strong as 1990's in both the 1991 appropriation bill and any version of NEA reauthorization that the House and Senate may enact.

Davis acknowledged that nearly all applications for 1990 NEA grants have been received and processed. But she said issuing the guidelines now--nearly at the end of the endowment's grant-making year--was undertaken as a result of a study of NEA procedures by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The GAO, acting at the request of Helms, reviewed NEA grant-making procedures, exonerating the agency of charges it funded obscene work this year, but suggesting several changes in endowment procedures.

"Those individuals who say their rejection (of grants) is motivated solely by inclusion (of the controversy obscenity language) miss the point, I believe," David said. "If I were to remove (the certification), the restriction would still apply. This prohibition was intended to attach not only to funding decisions by the NEA, but it was to follow the federal money once it goes out of the endowment's door and is used by the grantees."

However, Davis' assertion was challenged by Floyd Abrams, a prominent New York First Amendment lawyer who is representing the New School in its lawsuit against the NEA. Abrams contended that Frohnmayer and Davis blundered tactically when they decided to require written certification of the obscenity language--a step that, Abrams noted, the National Endowment for the Humanities chose not to take.

Both the NEA and the NEH are governed by the same obscenity-control language this year. The NEH has largely avoided being drawn into the increasingly acrimonious protest movement. Abrams said the New School would probably continue its lawsuit as long as the NEA obscenity certification requirement remains in place.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, he called the NEA and Justice Department efforts to explain the obscenity language "a real step forward." But, Abrams said, "What they should come out with is an abolition of a certification requirement which was not compelled by Congress and which was imposed only as a result of the NEA deciding that it should do so."

NEXT STEP

Action on two key bills governing the National Endowment for the Arts resumes when Congress returns from its traditional July 4 recess. Leaders of the House--where committee action is complete--have tentatively scheduled a floor vote on a bill to reauthorize the NEA for another five years either on July 12, or during the following two weeks. In the Senate, committee action is expected to conclude on July 11 or July 18, with a floor vote possible before the end of the month, when Congress is scheduled to adjourn until after Labor Day. Because the two versions of the bill are expected to be significantly different, a conference committee will probably have to be convened to form a consensus--a step not expected until after Labor Day. Separately, action is pending on an NEA appropriation bill for the 1991 fiscal year. House leaders expect votes on the money measure to follow the reauthorization legislation. In the Senate, no decision has been reached on timing of the appropriation bill.

REJECTED NEA GRANTS

Bella Lewitzky Dance Co.: $72,000

Ferne Ackerman, choreographer: $7,000

Oregon Shakespeare Fest.: $49,500

Paris Review: $10,000

Gettysburg Review: $4,550

N.Y. Shakespeare Festival: $50,000

N.Y. School for Social Research (Art in Public Places): $49,500

* N.Y. Theater for the New City: $17,500

U. of Iowa Press: $12,000

* Have not yet received official grant notification.

Note: University of California is considering specific grant rejections totaling $1.1 million, including $40,000 granted to UCLA, with another $738,000 in pending requests at UCLA. SOURCE: NEA

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