A decision this week by the acting chairwoman of National Endowment for the Arts to overturn grant recommendations to three gay and lesbian film festivals has spurred threats of a lawsuit against the NEA. The act has also spurred outrage among other arts organizations and individuals involved in the ongoing battle between the NEA and the arts community over content.
The timing of the decision by Anne-Imelda Radice also baffled some NEA observers, who wondered Thursday why Radice would launch another content controversy virtually on her way out the door. As a political appointee, Radice is expected to offer her resignation when President-elect Bill Clinton takes office.
In an action confirmed Thursday by the NEA, Radice will turn down three of 53 arts organizations recommended for funding from the Media Arts Fund, a re-granting program that is funded by the NEA and administered by the National Alliance for Media Arts and Cultures (NAMAC) in Oakland.
All of those organizations--the Gay and Lesbian Media Coalition of Los Angeles, the New Festival of New York and the Pittsburgh Lesbian and Gay International Festival--planned to use the NEA funds for film festivals held earlier this year. The three grants totaled $17,500.
On Thursday, the NEA issued this statement: "After reviewing the materials submitted by the National Alliance for Media Arts and Cultures, the acting (chairwoman) of the NEA finds that the proposed sub-grants do not demonstrate artistic excellence and artistic merit worthy of support by this agency." Radice was traveling and unavailable for comment.
Alliance director Julian Low said in a prepared statement that "Ms. Radice's decision . . . is an act of discrimination based on political concerns . . . she has turned the NEA grants-giving process into a political game."
According to Larry Horne, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival, sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Media Coalition, Radice held the three grant requests back when $250,000 in NEA funds were approved for distribution by the National Alliance in August. Radice asked for "further information" and requested that the groups use NEA funds for educational programs instead of film festivals. They refused.
"The timing (of the decision) seems significant," Horne said Thursday. "It seems to me there was some sort of stalling or waiting game to see what would happen at the (presidential) election, because (Radice) had indicated as far back as May that she was not in favor of these programs."
Earlier in the year, Radice had made a similar request of San Francisco's Frameline, which also sponsors a gay and lesbian film festival. Frameline director Tom DiMaria said that Frameline complied, using NEA funds to support other projects.
Said DiMaria of Thursday's announcement: "It's basically, a last-hurrah, vindictive act by the acting chair to implement her agenda for social change at the NEA while she still can."
Peter Hero, a member of the National Council for the Arts, the NEA's advisory board, said he supported Radice's decision because the ultimate decision rests with the chair, but said he was disappointed that the matter was not brought before the council during its quarterly meeting earlier this month. "The National Council was in Washington two weeks ago, it was logistically possible to consult us on this," he said.
Added Hero: "I'm disappointed that once again the spotlight is going to be placed on a handful of grants which some may find controversial and which the chair, in her authority to do so, found not meritorious from the NEA's point of view."
Representatives of two organizations that had visual art grant requests denied earlier this year by Radice--the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's List Gallery and Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery--said Radice's decision this week represented another violation of the NEA's mandate to judge art by merit, not content.
"She seems to be applying content restrictions once again," said List Gallery curator Helaine Posner. "And as we know, content restrictions go against the NEA guidelines, since all projects are supposed to be judged on their artistic merit."
Anderson Gallery director Steven High said he was "upset" by Radice's latest decision. "I was hoping with the change of Administration we could get out of this sort of content-based restricting of grants. I think (Radice) has taken on powers that greatly exceed those of chairmen in the past; with the new Administration, I'd like to see a better definition of what those powers are."
Meanwhile, speculation continues over who might be appointed to succeed Radice. Deborah Sale and Beverly Lindsey--both arts advisers to Clinton--have been frequently mentioned. However, Clinton may first revive the dormant Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities to steer the NEA through its reauthorization process next year. The council was last active during the Carter Administration, when it was chaired by Joan Mondale, who also has been mentioned as a candidate to head the NEA.