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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

Sitting in an overstuffed chair, Hanes, attired in a neat, dark suit, reflected on what has become the irony of this political affiliation. Hanes, 44, has shunned the limelight as the SECCA crisis has developed. But it has exploded around him, like it or not. The executive vice-president of an investment counseling firm with offices here and in Atlanta, Hanes finds himself and SECCA embroiled in a nasty political dispute that has made him personally uncomfortable and, to a certain extent, even divided his family.

Last year, the Awards in the Visual Arts, a pioneer program organized by SECCA's director, Ted Potter, nearly a decade ago, included Serrano among the 10 people it recognized as the nation's emerging artists. Among the works included by Serrano in the annual touring show that is one of the key rewards of winning the AVA (pronounced "AY-vuh") was "Piss Christ." The show that included Serrano's photograph toured to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year. The current year's show (without the photo), the eighth annual AVA exhibit, opens Saturday at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. The show has been seen in Atlanta and travels to Seattle and New York after its run in La Jolla closes Oct. 15.

AVA seeks to break the stranglehold on art recognition held by large population centers such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles by dividing the country into 10 districts--each of which includes about the same number of artists. Thus, AVA Area 2 includes only Manhattan and Area 10 is only Southern California and Hawaii.

Each district produces one of the 10 annual winners. It is the only visual arts competition in the country in which someone working in North Dakota has the same opportunity to be selected for national recognition as an artist in SoHo or the West Village in New York City.

The NEA provides about $70,000 of the AVA program's annual budget--a total of $412,000 last year.

Because of a bill working its way through the Congress, SECCA faces a pending five-year ban on eligibility for federal arts grants and narrowly averted an attempt in the North Carolina legislature to permanently bar the agency from grants by the North Carolina Arts Council.

A House-Senate conference committee in Washington will try to reach a compromise on the NEA funding bill after Labor Day. Observers agree, however, that if the ban on public funding for offensive art survives, and if the blacklisting of SECCA and the Institute for Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (which organized a show of Mapplethorpe's work) sticks, the endowment could not function.

Ironically, the actual "Piss Christ" photograph, 40 by 60 inches long, has never been exhibited in North Carolina, Potter said. Serrano's submission was selected by a panel of jurors who viewed his work on slides. The exhibit in which the photo itself was included didn't come to North Carolina. The original print has been sold by Stux Gallery in New York, which represents Serrano, to an anonymous private collector.

Helms did not respond to several requests for an interview. In May, however, Helms said in a Senate speech that criticized the AVA competition: "This program, supported by the National Endowment, is administered by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. They call it SECCA. I am sorry to say it is in my home state."

North Carolina Republican State Sen. Michael Decker, who sponsored a bill to ban SECCA from state funding and who has been in close contact with Helms' office on the issue, said the controversy over "Piss Christ" raises basic questions of the appropriateness of public money being used to finance arts programs.

Decker, a high school history teacher who lives in Walkertown, a community near Winston-Salem, said he was drawn to the issue because he was repelled by the title and subject matter of the photograph--although he had not seen the image in color until a reporter showed him one from a catalogue in Raleigh last week.

"I think that if you are an individual citizen and you want to go to an art gallery, that would be one thing," Decker said. "You have a choice. But taxpayers don't have that choice. I don't think it's proper to force them to subsidize something they would find offensive.

"I think art has a place and I think we can fund it, but I'm certainly not for funding these horrendous things that are being put on us in the name of art."

Decker said he supported a measure offered in the state senate after he introduced his own bill, which would ban state funding for religiously offensive art. He believes that just as civil rights laws were used to prohibit public money being used in support of racial segregation, the same principle can apply to keeping public support away from offensive artwork.

"My main design is to prevent people from showing things that they call art that are offensive to the vast majority of Americans."

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