Fine Arts School in Laguna Rejects Grant From NEA : Obscenity: The president of the Art Institute of Southern California tells the federal agency that acceptance of $15,000 would endorse a form of censorship.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Art Institute of Southern California, in rejecting a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, has become the first Orange County organization to turn down money from the embattled agency.

On the recommendation of their president, Russell E. Lewis, trustees of the small fine arts school voted unanimously late last week to turn down the grant rather than sign an NEA-mandated anti-obscenity certification required of all 1990 grant recipients.

"By accepting the grant, the institution would be taking the first step down the very dangerous path of censorship," Lewis wrote in a letter to the NEA.

The obscenity clause is the result of protests from right-wing groups against federal support of art exhibits containing controversial work. In its 1990 funding bill for the NEA, Congress last fall outlawed support for obscene work that does not meet unspecified artistic standards.

In his letter, Lewis voiced support of the NEA as "a major force in the fostering of creativity in America," but protested the congressional ruling: "Speech and expression should not be restricted or legislated by Congress."

About a dozen artists and arts groups across the country have rejected NEA grants to protest the obscenity oath. They include Los Angeles' Bella Lewitzky Dance Co. and the New School for Social Research, a university in New York City, both of which have sued the NEA over the new restriction.

Several Orange County arts groups have written the NEA to protest the anti-obscenity certification, but until now none had turned down grants. Indeed, the Pacific Symphony, Pacific Chorale, Laguna Art Museum, Orange County Philharmonic Society and Opera Pacific all have accepted grants. The Newport Harbor Art Museum has not decided whether to accept three pending grants totaling $100,000.

About 100 students attend the Art Institute, the only art institute in Orange County that awards a bachelor of fine arts degree. Plans call for enrollment to triple over the next several years. In his letter, Lewis wrote of the impact of the grant rejection decision on students.

"As a practicing attorney and president of an institution dedicated to fostering creativity in the intellects of college students, I would find it impossible to in any way sanction actions which erode the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," he wrote.

The NEA grant would have been the school's first and would have subsidized planning of an on-campus, outdoor public sculpture park, a spokeswoman said.

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