HIV-Infected Artist’s Show Draws Anger of 2 Senators : Arts: The performance includes passing a bloodied towel above the audience. Sens. Byrd and Nickles send protest letter to the NEA chairwoman.

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Two senators have protested to the National Endowment for the Arts the funding of a performance in which an HIV-positive artist takes his own blood on stage. The senators warned that the NEA risks losing its budget by supporting such projects.

Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said in a letter to NEA Chairwoman Jane Alexander that the agency’s funding for fiscal year 1995 would be in “serious jeopardy” if efforts are not taken to prevent “such grossly improper activities.”

The senators, quoting from a Washington Post story, said that artist Ron Athey, performing at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on March 5, tapped his scalp with needles to draw blood and stuck his arm with acupuncture needles.

Athey also cut a design into the back of another man, blotted the blood with a paper towel and hoisted the bloodied print on a clothesline above the audience.

Several people in the audience knocked over chairs as they fled from underneath the clothesline, according to the Post report.


The Walker Art Center has disputed the accuracy of the report, saying most of the people stayed and there was no panicked exit, and it stated that the performance posed no health risks.

“It’s really outrageous when one performance is used to overshadow the extraordinary programs that this agency has helped put into place,” said Cherie Simon, NEA’s director of public affairs.

She said that the NEA gave Walker, one of the nation’s most prestigious art centers, a grant of $104,500 this year, and that support for the Athey performance probably amounted to $100 or $150.

But Byrd and Nickles said in the letter that it was “unconscionable that the NEA would fund and condone such a performance, especially when the health of the audience members is put at risk.”

“The public should be able to expect to attend a publicly funded performance without being exposed to HIV-infected blood.”

The Walker Art Center said the blood on the paper towel was not from an HIV-infected man.

Byrd is the chairman and Nickles the ranking Republican of the Senate Interior appropriations subcommittee, which is responsible for overseeing the NEA budget.

They reminded Alexander in the letter that the NEA has been embroiled in controversy before and that its funding depends on ensuring that the projects it supports not be a misuse of taxpayer money.

Congress last fall approved a 1994 budget of $170 million for the NEA after turning back attempts by conservatives to eliminate or cut funding for the agency.

Opponents of NEA say it has provided money for art that is obscene or offends traditional values.

The NEA, an independent federal agency, has provided 100,000 grants since it was founded in 1965 to support symphonies, museums, dance companies and folk art.