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Government and the Arts : The Man Who Would Be Arts King

September 22, 1989|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

If a swing through Washington last week, in which Frohnmayer met with 20 key members of Congress, is any indication, the Portland trial lawyer and First Amendment expert can expect an easy time in his confirmation. He even had a cordial half-hour meeting with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), author of an amendment to the national endowment's 1990 appropriation bill that would ban federal support for any art that is "offensive, indecent or sacrilegious."

In an interview here this week, Frohnmayer declined to describe the encounter with Helms, but the senator is said to understand that his amendment may not survive a House-Senate conference committee.

Frohnmayer has likewise been circumspect in discussing details of the overall political unpleasantness surrounding the endowment. He has adhered to a strategy that relies on him keeping his thoughts about such things private until senators who vote on his confirmation have an opportunity to ask such questions themselves.

However, Helms also is said to have made it clear that he believes he has increased his own political capital by pressing his campaign against the endowment. Helms, who did not respond to calls seeking his comment, is said to believe that, while there will be a viable national endowment for Frohnmayer to run when he takes over next month, the period of confrontation with conservatives over what is--and is not--appropriate subject matter for government-supported art may have only just begun.

"We in the endowment need to mend our fences," Frohnmayer said. "By that I mean with the Congress. And we need to let them know that we are an agency that is responsive and responsible and is really going to do something for our society which is exemplary.

"I don't think one necessarily has to agree with every criticism that's leveled, but I do think that one has to take (the criticism) seriously and responsibly. Where we really need work is in emphasizing the positive of the agency."

Frohnmayer, 47, was born in Medford, Ore., one of three sons and a daughter of a lawyer father and music teacher/arts patron mother. Dave and John Frohnmayer became lawyers--though John flirted with a religious calling, attending Union Theological Seminary in New York as a Rockefeller Fellow. He holds a master's degree in Christian ethics from the University of Chicago.

Frohnmayer's two other siblings, Mira and Philip, are musicians and music teachers. But music has been a common vehicle for the whole family. John Frohnmayer mastered the guitar as a teen-ager and has kept up his voice instruction throughout his legal career. Dave Frohnmayer, who describes himself as the least accomplished musician in the family, still managed to win a celebrity "battle of the batons" benefit for the Eugene Symphony.

Although John Frohnmayer's theological background has drawn little attention, it may turn out to be directly relevant to the endowment crisis. One of the works that got the endowment into trouble was an image of a photograph, "Piss Christ," of a crucifix immersed in urine, by New York photographer Andres Serrano.

Frohnmayer has consistently refused to discuss his personal feelings about this image or the homoerotic and sadomasochistic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, which make up the other immediate cause of the controversy. But it is known that, regarding "Piss Christ," his personal theological reading of the image is that it is not sacrilegious but could be seen as a legitimate commentary on the brutal persecution of early Christians that the cross first symbolized.

He is said to find the body of Mapplethorpe's work--most of which was well-received art photography--a significant contribution to the medium but to question the choice of subject matter of the photographer who died of AIDS this year at 43.

Frohnmayer served in the Navy aboard the light cruiser Oklahoma City off the coast of Vietnam in the late 1960s. A lawyer in Eugene and then in Portland beginning in 1972, he has specialized in civil litigation. Frohnmayer has a special interest in First Amendment law and has represented Oregon newspapers and television stations.

He was a member of the Oregon Arts Commission for seven years and president for four. He is on the board of Chamber Music Northwest; has sung in New York, Chicago and Palo Alto; directed a sculpture competition in Eugene in 1974, and was on a committee to select sculpture for a new Capitol in Salem in 1977.

It was the Capitol sculpture that may have been Frohnmayer's first brush with the rough and tumble of politics, Dave Frohnmayer recalls. At the time, Dave was a state representative who had opposed financing of the sculpture John had helped to choose. This development was not well received in Salem, but John defused the controversy by inviting an articulate sculptor to testify about acquisition of the artwork.

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