Government arts programs should make a point of supporting experimental and controversial work and the National Endowment for the Arts has a “specially compelling responsibility” to protect freedom of artistic expression, a new private arts agency report concludes.
However, an official of the American Assembly--the Columbia University-affiliated public policy think tank that is to release the report this morning--said the NEA political crisis of the last 18 months has raised questions about whether the federal arts agency has forcefully played the role of arts freedom protector.
Stephen Benedict, project director of the American Assembly study, said that “the question remains open” whether the arts endowment has been taking a policy direction opposite from the one urged on it by the new report.
“I think there is a lot of concern,” Benedict said of fears that the NEA may fail to resume its leadership role in the arts in the wake of new legislation passed just before Congress adjourned. “Some people in the arts would say the first signs are not good,” Benedict said.
But the report lays blame far more widely than simply with the arts endowment. It reserves some of its most potent criticism for the nation’s arts community, which, the assembly asserts, “was not prepared to compete on equal terms with its adversaries.”
The nation’s artists and arts institutions did major damage to their own cause by failing to develop a unified political strategy and allowing their collective effectiveness to be dissipated in petty turf disputes.
“Arts advocacy can only succeed if all participants in the process refrain from asserting their interests at the expense of others,” the report concludes. “Fractures occurred in the arts community itself.”
The report is the product of a three-day meeting last month at which more than 75 government arts officials, artists, arts patrons and businessmen met to assess the damage done to the nation’s arts institutions by the fractious NEA battle that began in April of last year and to try to plot a course for more successful political action in the future.
But CalArts president Steven D. Lavine, co-organizer with Benedict of the conference, said he came away concerned that political damage to the NEA may already have been so great that the agency could be perceived as expendable in a Congress preoccupied with deficit reduction and a generalized deterioration of the economy.
“It probably won’t happen in the next 12 months,” Lavine said. “But we could see the whole agency lost not as some kind of policy decision, but simply as a last-minute compromise. We could be sacrificed to some kind of political expediency at four in the morning,” Lavine said.
At the same time, newly obtained correspondence from a key congressman to NEA chairman John E. Frohnmayer appears to underscore questions over the effectiveness of Frohnmayer’s arts advocacy role and the precariousness of the NEA’s political position in Washington. Frohnmayer attended the American Assembly meeting, which was held in Harriman, N.Y., Nov. 8-11.
The letter, from Rep. Paul Henry (R-Mich.), surfaces as the NEA’s advisory National Council on the Arts prepares to convene a two-day emergency meeting to try to resolve questions about how to put into effect a new law regulating the NEA’s operations.
A key discussion point will be how the NEA will comply with wording inserted into the new law at Henry’s behest that exhorts the arts endowment to observe “general standards of decency” and respect traditional American values in deciding what arts projects will receive government funds.
Henry’s letter to Frohnmayer, dated Nov. 7 but whose existence did not become known until last week, castigates the NEA chairman for remarks he made in an interview with The Times in which he said the so-called decency wording in the new arts endowment law could be handled in a way that had a “benign” effect on artists.
“I am very concerned” about the arts endowment chairman’s remarks. “Such an attitude would be a direct breach of faith with those of us ‘in the middle’ who have gone out of our way to try to save and strengthen the endowment over the past two years,” Henry wrote to Frohnmayer.
A spokesman for Henry said the congressman and Frohnmayer talked by telephone after the letter was sent and that Henry was reassured by the NEA chairman’s assertions that he intended the word “benign” to mean that the decency clause would have “beneficial” effects.
The American Assembly report concluded that, while support of the arts by governmental agencies at all levels is appropriate, the NEA--as the lead federal arts organization--must take an uncompromising position on issues of freedom of speech and artistic expression.
“Constitutional principles of freedom of expression, essential to a democratic society, are of special importance to a thriving artistic climate,” the American Assembly concluded.
Government, the report asserted, should make a special effort to single out for support art that may be “risky or unpopular.” “Some art has always been controversial and will continue to be,” the assembly concluded.
Underscoring the report’s conclusions about divisions within the arts community, however, the American Assembly also recommended that a group of corporate chief executives should be formed to act as a new arts-advocacy group nationwide, attempting to influence arts agencies at all levels of government.
The proposal, which grew out of a suggestion by New York publisher Arthur Levitt, was attacked by artists, however, who contended that such a businessman’s group might be willing to sacrifice the needs of practicing artists and cutting edge art groups to preserve funding for the large arts institutions on whose boards corporate chief executives tend to sit.