Anne-Imelda Radice was well aware that people would be watching when the beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts convened its first meeting since the departure of John E. Frohnmayer, forced out in a conservative backlash by President Bush in February. So the new acting chairman of the agency decided to set the tone with a strong pep talk right from the start.
“We have what it takes to pull this agency forward,” she told members of the advisory National Council on the Arts as they opened their two-day meeting here this past weekend. “We can regain the confidence of the American people and their representatives in Congress. We are all responsible for communicating the full story and for winning new laurels for the endowment.”
Radice, who had been serving as senior deputy chairman since March 1, 1991, officially took over as its acting chairman last week. She assumes the post when the NEA is under an unrelenting attack from the religious right and from conservative members of Congress for funding sexually explicit artworks, exhibits and performances. Radice, who was originally brought to the NEA at the suggestion of former White House chief of staff John Sununu, has raised fears in some segments of the arts community that her mandate is to protect the Bush Administration from controversy.
Frohnmayer was abruptly dismissed Feb. 20 in the wake of conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary. Many charged that Frohnmayer was sacrificed to appease those who approved of Buchanan’s campaign rhetoric that denounced the NEA for supporting projects that he deemed obscene and pornographic.
“Of course we’ve all been deeply affected by the events of the last several years,” Radice said in a brief interview but offering no hint of her own views on the controversial subject. “I knew this (first meeting) was an opportunity for us to look toward the future. That’s why I said what I said: It is a new day.”
Nevertheless, a sense of foreboding that the agency’s crisis was far from over ran like an undercurrent throughout the meeting.
Poet and council member Donald Hall, for example, who is ill and could not attend the meeting, sent a letter and asked that it be read aloud to council members. He indicted agency critics as “bullies” and “art bashers,” and urged his colleagues to resist their pressure.
“When we pay tribute to a bully, a bully demands more,” he wrote. “The art bashers are our enemies. We will not win their support for the arts by suppressing art that admits sexuality or that represents diversity or that makes public the culture of American minorities.”
And still others warned that the NEA faces a tough fight on Capitol Hill when it seeks its fiscal 1993 budget and later, its reauthorization. Radice is scheduled to appear this week before the House appropriations subcommittee to discuss the agency’s $176-million budget request for next year.
“The atmosphere on the Hill is anything but tranquil,” said New York State Sen. Roy Goodman, a member of the council. “We are still in jeopardy.”
Robert Lynch, chief executive officer of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, agreed.
“You will continue to be under attack for anything considered objectionable,” he told the arts council. “We have to be ready collectively and in unified fashion. There is the feeling on the Hill that the public is upset about the arts. (Congress) has a lot of ideas about what they want you to do with their money.”
The council this weekend recommended that 1,122 grants be approved for a total of nearly $66.2 million. All but one were approved without any debate, including a grant for Frameline, Inc., and its award-winning gay and lesbian film festival in San Francisco. The Frameline grant had been held over from the council’s February meeting because of what the endowment termed “unclear interim reporting.” Critics of the endowment charged that the grant was held up for political reasons during the height of Buchanan’s attack.
Two grants were also approved for Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, which has had a series of run-ins with the endowment. One of the grants was for “The Warrior’s Council,” a collaboration including Tim Miller, one of the four artists suing the NEA over fellowships that were recommended by a peer panel but denied by the council.
At this weekend’s meeting, the council did make a point of singling out one potentially controversial recommendation for discussion--a proposed exhibit that includes graphic depictions of male and female sexual organs, among other things.
The exhibit, called “Corporal Politics,” is planned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s List Visual Arts Center and includes “genital wallpaper” by Robert Gober, photographs of sexual organs bedecking women’s clothing by Annette Messager and a glass sculpture of sperm by Kiki Smith.
Council member Peter Hero, president of the Community Foundation of Santa Clara County, said he found it of “high quality, lively, thought-provoking” and, in some places, “amusing,” and added: “In the spirit of Donald Hall’s letter . . . I support it.”
Sally Bliss, another council member who is former artistic director of the Joffrey II Dancers, agreed. “It’s creative, original and funny,” she said. “Maybe I wouldn’t put it in my home, but I really recommend it strongly.”
The council voted 11-1 (with one abstention) to recommend that the exhibit be funded. Only Louise McClure, former music teacher and performer and wife of former Sen. Jim McClure (R-Idaho), voted against it.
Ultimately, Radice will be the one who approves or rejects the council’s recommendations, and she gave no clue where she stood on the MIT proposal.
She said she might in fact have a conflict of interest in reviewing the application because the curator of the exhibit once worked with her when Radice was director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. If that turns out to be the case, the decision will be made by Randy McAusland, the agency’s deputy chair for programs.
“I don’t know how it will end up,” Radice said. “We have to consult with the lawyers.”
Radice acknowledged that she was concerned with the explicit sexuality of the exhibit, but stressed that it “was only one aspect to be considered--but not the only aspect.”