Federal Panel Opposes Limits on Art Content : Congress: A special bipartisan commission also urges a broad overhaul of the embattled National Endowment for the Arts's operations.


A special commission investigating the National Endowment for the Arts emphatically opposed on Tuesday any statutory restrictions on the kinds of art that the agency can support, but urged broad-ranging structural reform in the endowment's operations.

The Independent Commission--set up by Congress last year to try to resolve the still raging controversy over a series of disputed NEA grants--declared that "the standard for publicly funded art must go beyond the standard for privately funded art."

But in a unanimous report that bridged a deep ideological chasm between the political extremes of the 12 commission members, the panel said that any codification of what kinds of art the federal government can fund would raise "serious constitutional issues," be meaningless and mire the NEA in an endless series of lawsuits.

Leaders of the commission said the report had been developed in a consensus-building processthat one of them, former congressman and now New York University President John Brademas, declared had resulted in "a little blood on the floor" in terms of spirited, sometimes angry, exchanges among the commission members. Brademas co-chaired the commission with Leonard Garment, a Washington lawyer prominent in several Republican administrations.

Without dissent, however, the commission urged a peaceful, political and timely resolution of the crisis that has left the NEA on the politically endangered species list here for nearly 18 months.

"There are many individuals on both sides of the current debate who think the endowment a convenient and newsworthy vehicle to advance their own objectives," the commission report concluded. "Some do not care a great deal about whether the agency survives. America has had more than enough of this uncompromising kind of behavior."

Specifically, the commission recommended that:

* Specific language proscribing the support of obscene, indecent or offensive artworks be avoided, but with the clear recognition that the funding of strictly obscene work is already illegal under a variety of state and federal laws. The commission argued that a major reason to sidestep such specific wording is that the federal government's arts agency is simply "an inappropriate tribunal" for judging such matters.

* The NEA rescind a controversial requirement that grant recipients sign a certification that they will not produce obscene work. The requirement, which NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer has insisted on retaining despite recommendations from the endowment's advisory National Council on the Arts that he retract it, has sparked a torrent of protest, two lawsuits against the NEA and at least a dozen grant rejections, including a $30,000 rejection by the Los Angeles Festival.

* Statutory reforms be enacted that would drastically reshape the operations of the NEA's system of expert panels that currently review grant applications and suggest specific dollar amounts to be awarded to artists and arts organizations. The reforms would, among other things, bar panel members from being involved in any way with grant applications their panels are scheduled to consider.

* To avoid the appearance that NEA panels sometimes consist of little more than groups of artists awarding money to other artists whose work they consider avant-garde, that NEA panels be broadened to include non-artists and that limits be placed on the time anyone can serve on an NEA panel.

* The NEA chairman be given broader statutory powers to act as the ultimate authority over all grants--including a proposal that review panels recommend more grants than the agency can actually award, with the chairman ultimately judging who will be from a panel listing, which would take on the role of a ranking of grant finalists. The National Council on the Arts would be restructured, with establishment of standing committees to help judge grant applications.

Some artist organizations immediately attacked the recommendations for increasing the power of the chairman at the expense of the expert review panels. Jeffrey Chester, a spokesman for the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, said that the commission recommendations would establish Frohnmayer as "an arts czar."

The commission document drew mixed reviews on Capitol Hill. Co-chairmen Brademas and Garment said that they hoped the report, which contains 29 different conclusions and recommendations, would provide the framework for a compromise offering enough reform of the NEA to mollify the arts endowment's critics, without permanently compromising the NEA's ability to make artistic decisions and to observe First Amendment guarantees of freedom of artistic expression.

Leaders of mainstream arts groups said they hoped that the commission document, by mixing emphatic declarations of the unacceptability of content controls with findings urging specific structural changes in the NEA, could emerge as the basis for enactment of bills--now stalled in the House and Senate--to renew the endowment's legal mandate for another three to five years and to appropriate money for its 1991 operations. Committee meetings on the legislation are scheduled in both the House and Senate today.

Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), a key supporter of restriction-free NEA legislation in the House, said, "The independent commission may have provided Congress with the material, the building blocks, for a try at a bipartisan consensus" and that Brademas and Garment had enough bipartisan political credits in the Congress to ensure that the commission recommendations "may well find their way into law."

A less sanguine view was expressed by Rep. Tom Coleman (R-Mo.), who discounted the commission report, saying it remains almost inevitable that Congress will insist on including some kind of specific description of the kinds of art the NEA can support in new legislation. The report, said Coleman, "illustrates that the NEA needs to be changed and it's crying out for reforms."

Conservative congressmen did not respond immediately to the new report. A spokesman for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) said he did not attend a congressional briefing on the report and was still studying it Tuesday afternoon.

An arts endowment spokesman said the agency had not had time to closely study the commission report and would probably not comment on the recommendations before early next week.

Coleman and Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) have been the leading House advocates of a bill that would radically restructure public arts funding in the United States, increasing from 20% to 60% the amount of money in the NEA budget earmarked for direct grants to state arts councils. The Independent Commission specifically rejected the Coleman proposal, but said the interactions between the NEA and state and local art agencies "merit further study."

Brademas and Garment made their remarks at a Capitol Hill press conference. Most commission members agreed with their assessment.

Commission member Rosalind Wyman, a former Los Angeles City Council member, said the report "recognized that there is certainly controversy in the land, but that government support does not mean government control" of art.

"I think it gives an opportunity" for a compromise in Congress that could break the political logjam in which the NEA is trapped, Wyman said. "I think some congressmen now have the opportunity to say, 'Why don't we see if this works?' If the Congress is angry over grant-making, we went after that to tighten grant procedures."

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