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In the Eye of the Storm : Inside the North Carolina arts foundation that's under fire for sponsoring a tour of 'offensive' artworks

August 13, 1989|ALLAN PARACHINI

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — In 1978, as a young, white Southern businessman with strong conservative feelings of alienation about the Democratic Party, F. Borden Hanes Jr. switched his registration to Republican.

There was one candidate for the U.S. Senate, in particular, whom Hanes found a politically kindred spirit and for whose reelection campaign Hanes organized a group of other like-minded young men. Hanes recalls that the group raised between $30,000 and $40,000.

Their man won. His name: Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

"I raised a pretty good slug of money for him," said Hanes. When Helms ran for reelection again five years ago, Hanes worked behind the scenes in the campaign.

"I don't agree with him on a lot of things, but there are ideas in which I'm with him," Hanes said, "such as free enterprise, foreign policy and economics. But on the abortion issue (and the larger) conservative social agenda, I just don't identify with it at all."

Under the circumstances, there is something strikingly ironic about watching Borden Hanes pick up a copy of a local newspaper that has published a color reproduction of a photograph titled "Piss Christ." It is an image of a plastic crucifix immersed in a tank of the artist's own urine.

The photograph, the work of New York photographer Andres Serrano, 38, was included in a show sponsored last year by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, of which Borden Hanes is chairman of the board.

SECCA (pronounced "SEEK-uh") has been targeted by Helms in what most observers agree is the most profound crisis for the National Endowment for the Arts since the federal agency was founded nearly 25 years ago. (The NEA has helped fund SECCA.) Helms and a handful of Republican state legislators in Raleigh have seized on the depiction of the crucifix and the NEA's funding of a show of photographs--some depicting homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes--by the late Robert Mapplethorpe to launch a campaign at the state and federal levels to ban public funding for offensive or indecent artworks.

It was the controversial photograph that drew Hanes and the boards of SECCA and the old-money, blueblood foundation set up by the will of James G. Hanes, Borden's granduncle, which provides about one-quarter of SECCA's funding, into the political crisis.

Hanes had been discussing his past support for Helms while sitting in what was once the parlor in the main house on the former estate of James G. Hanes, who had run the family's textile business. The house is now a part of the 32-acre, wooded campus-like setting for SECCA's headquarters. Carefully, Hanes studied "Piss Christ," in which the crucifix can be clearly identified in front of a reddish background. "I didn't even look at the title initially," he said. "It gave me a sense of peace. I felt good about it. I didn't know at the time what it was submerged in.

"I thought it was a pretty innovative approach. That amber hue is not only very colorful, but it conveys a sense of passivity."

He analyzed the photograph with a knowing eye. He says that, in the decade since his family urged him to join SECCA's board, he has become an ardent fan of some of art's most avant-garde work.

"My vision would be that SECCA is a nationally recognized organization--one that the arts community in New York and Los Angeles can respect as on the cutting edge of contemporary art, with feeling for the artists and feeling for the communities that we serve.

"I'm hopeful that, in the long run, the flak is going to be beneficial." He reasons that it will make people aware of SECCA, and those sympathetic to its cause may contribute money.

Redge Hanes, Borden Hanes' cousin and chairman of the James G. Hanes Foundation, is even blunter about the need for artists to work free of political pressure. "If art doesn't provoke, who needs it? You can go buy wallpaper from decorators."

The crisis has probably brought an end to Borden Hanes' support for Helms. But even today, Hanes said he could probably call Helms and get through. He has never placed the call.

"I just think he's got his mind made up," Hanes said of Helms. "No matter what I would say, would he change his opinion becauses of something I would say? I think there is an element in his support structure that has really got his attention here. I can't identify with it. I'm just going to have to think about whether I can vote for him again."

Borden Hanes comes from one of the two old-line Winston-Salem families that are the social bedrock in this Forsyth County city of about 135,000. There are the Haneses, of the textile company family that gave the world Hanes T-shirts and underwear, and there is the family descended from the tobacco fortune of R. J. Reynolds.

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