The National Endowment for the Arts has exonerated the 15-year-old San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival of allegations by two conservative congressmen and a right-wing religious group that it included pornographic motion pictures in its most recent summer program.
The action, disclosed Monday, concluded the first official NEA investigation ordered under provisions of a controversial law enacted last year that applies anti-obscenity controls to the NEA’s appropriation bill for 1990. The measure, which has sparked a storm of controversy among artists, bars NEA support of obscene artworks unless they meet high standards of artistic excellence.
Existence of the investigation apparently underscores the unusual degree of sensitivity within the NEA to its public image and the desire of NEA chairman John E. Frohnmayer to steer as wide a course as possible around potential controversy. In recent weeks, some arts observers and key congressmen have charged that Frohnmayer has effectively transformed the NEA into the kind of agency that conservatives, led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), have urged that it become.
“The NEA is really pulling away from many of the kinds of work it has traditionally funded,” said one congressional staff aide acquainted with the NEA’s activities. “They are trying to gloss over their support of work where it is hard to deny that the money involved is NEA money.”
The NEA has defended itself against criticism by Helms, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) and other conservatives by saying its funds were used only for indirect support of controversial projects.
Jack Lichtenstein, the NEA’s public affairs director, said Monday that the arts endowment has gone to great lengths in the last few months to try to avoid controversy. “I think it’s safe to say that we’re trying to be as responsive as possible to the public and their elected representatives in the Congress,” Lichtenstein said, “and we are very sensitive to public perception of what we are and how we do the people’s business.”
James Fitzpatrick, a prominent Washington arts lawyer, said the NEA’s eagerness to avert controversy is indicative of what he characterized as “the implicit chilling effect of debates of this sort.” He said that “during these last few months, the endowment has wanted to make sure there weren’t any missteps.”
The San Francisco inquiry, whose existence had not been publicly known until last week, was disclosed in a July 5 letter from the NEA to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The GAO had raised a series of seven questions about endowment grants and grant-making policies as part of an investigation initiated by Helms’ office. The GAO also questioned creative-writing awards to three winners of NEA fellowships and even sought a percentage breakdown of NEA grants for “representational” versus “abstract” artworks.
The letter replying to the GAO’s questions was written by NEA general counsel Julie Davis. It was among a file of documents obtained by The Times from the GAO last week. Neither Helms’ press spokesman nor John Mashburn, a Helms aide who has made a series of demands for NEA information on the senator’s behalf, responded to calls seeking comment on the situation.
“Because we have received a number of requests to check into allegations that this year’s festival may have included obscene images, the endowment is investigating whether the current law has been violated,” Davis said in the letter. The NEA said it dispatched Brian O’Doherty, head of the endowment’s media arts program, to San Francisco in June to monitor the film festival.
The festival, attended by an estimated 25,000, has received NEA support for the last three years, including $9,000 in 1990, $10,000 last year and $6,000 in 1988. It has a 1991 grant application pending before the NEA.
Officials said the festival has a total budget of $310,000 and receives funding from the California Arts Council and several foundations. Earned income from ticket sales accounts for 70% of that budget, officials said.
This year’s festival drew critical praise from Bay Area film critics, who lauded films about movie star Greta Garbo’s alleged lesbianism, the experiences of gays during World War II and the AIDS epidemic.
The NEA’s O’Doherty attended film showings and panel discussions to check on the quality of works shown, the NEA and the film festival said. The NEA said it relied on obscenity guidelines issued earlier this year to determine that work at the festival did not violate anti-pornography provisions of this year’s funding bill.
The endowment’s Lichtenstein said the inquiry “made pretty clear that the festival was considered to be one of the premier ones in the world.”
That the festival came under scrutiny, said Tom DiMaria, its executive director, “is not surprising at all. This is not the first time we’ve been targeted by the right.”
DiMaria said the complaints have roughly paralleled those of Helms, Rohrabacher and the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Assn. The festival has also been targeted by the Rev. Pat Robertson on his “700 Club” Christian television program.
Just last week, Rohrabacher, leader of anti-NEA forces in the House, used the film festival grant at a Washington press conference as an example of “pornography” funded by the arts endowment.
Helms, Rohrabacher and the Wildmon group had complained about two items on the film festival’s schedule, including a 1963 film produced by the late Andy Warhol and a panel discussion about erotic gay Asian imagery.
In addition to the festival, Helms and the GAO sought information about 1990 NEA creative-writing fellowships to poets Minnie Bruce Pratt, Audre Lorde and Chrystos. The three authors are prominent in counterculture literary circles.
The NEA supplied detailed notes from a review panel that judged the writing fellowship grants, concluding that “this writing (samples submitted by the authors with their 1990 grant applications) is neither pornographic nor obscene, nor do we have any reason to believe that the work to be produced under these fellowships will violate the . . . obscenity prohibition.”
The GAO documents also indicate that the endowment went to unusual lengths to respond to an inquiry about the proportion of NEA-funded visual arts projects that include clearly representational--as opposed to abstract--subject matter. The endowment ordered the head of its visual arts program to personally review 2,400 slides submitted by 240 grant recipients. The visual arts program head, Susan Lubowsky, then categorized the projects in terms of how recognizable their subject matter was.
The review, the NEA said, established that half of its grants were for work that “contained identifiable imagery” and 33% were “clearly true to life.”
The GAO investigation so far has included extensive requests for endowment documents and at least one full-blown audit of a private arts group. It also includes a still incomplete field inquiry by GAO investigators looking into charges by Helms that the NEA engaged in illegal lobbying activities during a May meeting in Winston-Salem, N.C., and on at least one other occasion.