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Conflict of Interest Issue in NEA Grants? : Arts: Oversight panels include artists who have applied for funding. But this does not violate written endowment policy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The National Endowment for the Arts is facing new controversy over proposed grants to performers who were recently denied fellowships. Those awards are part of another developing controversy involving artists who served on an NEA grant review panel that has recommended money for projects in which they are directly involved.

One member of an independent commission reviewing the NEA has labeled the endowment’s conflict-of-interest policy “a sham.”

The practice of artists serving on NEA panels to which they have themselves applied for financial support is not new--and does not violate written endowment ethics guidelines for panel members, according to a top endowment attorney.

But the revelation, in NEA materials provided to The Times this week, brought strong criticism from members of the advisory National Council on the Arts and an independent commission set up by Congress last year to investigate NEA grant-making practices. The situation appeared to have been exacerbated by the fact that two of the five grants made to projects in which review panel members were involved, also happen to include Karen Finley and Holly Hughes--artists already prominent in the endowment controversy.

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The two artists were among four denied fellowships by NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer last month in an apparent attempt to mollify endowment political critics. The grants to the rejected fellows both involve provocative stage imagery intended to challenge social conventions, according to the grant applications. The recommendations are scheduled to be reviewed by the advisory council at a meeting here next week.

Discovery of the recommendations involving five grants involving reviewer-recipients came a day after the independent commission evaluating the NEA met here and discussed the dual role grant review practice. The system was criticized by John Agresto, president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M.--the most conservative member of the 12-person independent commission, which was named by President Bush.

“It is simply insufficient to say, ‘I’ll leave the room (for debate on my grant,)’ ” said Agresto, who labeled the policy “a sham.”

“Your buddies are back there. The NEA knows before they set up the panels whether a person (on the panel) is putting in a grant proposal. This looks to me like more than seeming impropriety. This looks like impropriety itself.”

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Jacob Neusner, a national council member who is often at odds with other members of the 26-member body, also condemned the decisions on the five grants and vowed to challenge the propriety of the grant review at the national council meeting next week. “This is brazen and it’s an offense,” he said. “The fact is that, of the grants (in the category involved), two are intensely controversial . . . made by panel members to themselves.”

NEA policies permit the dual grant reviewer-grantee roles as long as the situation is disclosed to the endowment and as long as such reviewer-artists do not participate in--and leave the room during--discussions of their particular grants, according to Arthur Warren, an NEA deputy general counsel.

Artists familiar with the practice defended it as inevitable in a system in which the endowment seeks the most qualified reviewers for its projects--panel members who inevitably, these arts expert say, will occasionally also be applicants themselves. NEA internal documents appear to show that the conflicts of interest of panel members involved in the five grants were all clearly acknowledged--both in discussions of the review panel, which met in May, and in the written report of its actions.

“There is full disclosure to the (national council) and the agency of the involvement (of reviewers as grant applicants),” Warren said. “These things are not hidden. They’re opened up to the sunshine.

“In order to get the best recommendations, you want people who are actively involved in the field,” Warren said. “These people tend frequently to also be practitioners. I think most panelists are scrupulous. They understand that, for the system to work, it has to be perceived by the public as having integrity.”

Even longtime, influential endowment supporters were dismayed by the disclosures. “I wish those who are in the endowment administration when it is under such attack would try not to bring more problems to the institution (at the same time that) those of us who are fighting so hard to maintain something that has been as great as the endowment has been for America,” said Rosalind Wyman, a former national council member and Los Angeles City Council member who serves with Agresto on the independent commission.

Recommendations for new grants to Finley and Hughes have been seen as a key test of the degree to which the NEA will make grant decisions based on concerns over the way grants to cutting edge art may be focused on by critics.

The situation was intensified by two unrelated new developments involving New York City artist organizations:

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* The General Accounting Office--the investigative arm of Congress--sent letters to the Franklin Furnace Archive and the Kitchen Center for Music, Video & Dance in Manhattan formally requesting information on appearances since 1984 by four artists: Finley, Frank Moore of New York, and Johanna Went and Cheri Gaulke of Los Angeles. The GAO said the inquiry resulted from a demand by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Both organizations refused to respond to a GAO telephone query unless officials put it in writing. The GAO letters, dated July 17, set no deadline for providing data.

* The endowment notified Franklin Furnace that it must provide the NEA with “detailed information” on every visual arts exhibit it plans to produce with NEA support within 30 days or face rejection of a $20,000 grant. The request was in a letter dated July 13 from Julie Davis, the NEA general counsel. Earlier, the NEA notified the Kitchen that it would be required to provide advance notice to the arts endowment of productions it plans to present.

The Kitchen is listed as the producer of the Finley work for which the $25,000 in new funding has been recommended. In grant materials obtained Wednesday, Franklin Furnace is recommended for a $7,000 grant for an avant- garde stage production, and the Kitchen is recommended for an additional $15,000.

The NEA, citing a long-established policy of refusing to comment on pending grant applications, declined to respond to questions about the grant recommendations.

“If this grant is vetoed,” said Finley in a telephone interview, “then that is proving that there is blacklisting and they are really out to make it as hard as possible for me to create new work.”

In the new production, according to NEA documents, Finley and composer Jerry Hunt will “deconstruct” the conventional concept of the television talk-variety show. The concepts, the grant description concludes, “promise to be more extreme, on the edge and emotionally forthright than typical talk show entertainment in contemporary America.”

The $15,000 Hughes grant is for “No Trace of the Blond,” in which Hughes and the prominent writer-performer-director Ellen Sebastian will collaborate under the aegis of the Downtown Art Center in New York City. Hughes and Sebastian, the document continues, “see the image of vampires as an expression of irrepressible sexuality within a repressive social order and they plan to explore that image from a feminist revisionary perspective.”

Barbara Tsumagari, director of the Kitchen, defended the NEA grant panel system, contending that “the policies set out by the endowment are scrupulously adhered to. Conflict of interest is somewhat inherent when you use professional peer panels, but I think it’s been a very workable solution.”

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Finley’s proposed collaborator, Hunt, was a member of the New Forms grant review panel that approved the applications in late May. Sebastian, who is listed as Hughes’ collaborator, was also a member of the panel. In addition to the grants involving Hughes and Finley, the new batch of 52 recommended grants--with a combined total value of $700,000--chosen from among 436 applications includes:

* $10,000 and $18,850 to Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) gallery to support two productions, “Detour on Avenue Deja Vu” that is part of the L.A. Festival, and work by the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a group of homeless artists. LACE executive director Roberto Bedoya was a member of the grant-review panel.

* $17,000 to support a production in Cambridge, Mass., of work by a Belgian choreographer for which grant panel member Marie Cieri will be project director.

Bedoya, who has served on a number of NEA review panels, acknowledged that the situation can be “a touchy one,” but he defended the panel system, saying, “There is always that muddled, gray area that exists in the peer panel process. But I believe in it 100%. I don’t think you can eliminate those (occasional) muddled incidents.


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