The National Endowment for the Arts awarded $47 million in grants Friday to 1,200 artists and arts organizations, including two controversial performers who were denied federal funds last year under an anti-obscenity statute.
Grants totaling $35,000 went to two avant-garde theaters in New York for production of new works by Karen Finley and Holly Hughes. Their grant applications last year were rejected at the height of a political controversy over alleged NEA support for obscene and blasphemous art.
Endowment chairman John E. Frohnmayer said he had personally reviewed the new grant requests on behalf of Finley and Hughes. The applications had been approved by two separate review panels and by the National Council on the Arts, the NEA’s presidentially appointed advisory body.
“A major thrust of the arts endowment is to encourage innovative art,” Frohnmayer said in a statement. He said he was “satisfied that the grants meet the criteria set forth in the guidelines” for supporting works of artistic excellence.
The Finley and Hughes grants were among $47 million awarded to support a wide variety of arts projects across the country in the 1990-91 fiscal year.
They ranged from $1-million grants to New York choreographer Merce Cunningham and the Houston Grand Opera to $3,000 for a Mozart festival in Bartlesville, Okla.
The NEA awarded $20,000 to the Kitchen Center in New York for production of a work by Finley, in collaboration with composer Jerry Hunt, that will use a talk-show format to explore mental illness.
A $15,000 grant went to the Downtown Art Co. of New York for a project by Hughes titled “No Trace of the Blond,” in collaboration with director Ellen Sebastian. The NEA said it “will draw on ancient non-Western traditions to explore several contemporary issues.”
Attention was focused on the two applications because of their controversial stage monologues and musical acts, which usually deal with feminism, racism, homosexual concerns and political issues, sometimes in sexually explicit terms.
Barbara Tsumagari, executive director of the Kitchen theater, and Cliff Scott, producing director of the Downtown Art Co., expressed gratitude for their grants, which Tsumagari called “encouraging for the moment.”
Joy Silverman, a spokeswoman for the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, a nonprofit artists’ organization, said it was “terrific that Frohnmayer has finally seen the light” and approved grants for two performers who “deserve national recognition.”
In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, however, Silverman said the obscenity controversy had left the arts community disillusioned with the NEA chairman as an arts advocate. “When things get tough, Frohnmayer will always bow to political pressure and he won’t defend the arts,” she said.