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College Arts Meeting Signals New Awareness : Activism: The keynote speech by an L.A. artist confronts political controversies head-on. All but one of the group's awards go to women and minorities.

February 19, 1990|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

NEW YORK — Broadcasting its new position as a socially and politically concerned organization, the College Art Assn. capped its 1990 conference with a provocative speech by Los Angeles artist June Wayne and granted all but one of its annual awards to women and minorities.

The four-day conference last week brought about 6,000 artists, art historians, curators and other art professionals to New York, where they attended more than 100 programs and panels, participated in an employment market and visited art institutions.

Wayne, a longtime political activist who was introduced as "the conscience of the art world," drew frequent applause and a standing ovation when she delivered the keynote address last Friday night at the CAA's convocation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Talking about recent controversies on censorship and government funding of art, Wayne skewered Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) as a "demagogue on a rampage," but noted that his conservative views are far from unique in the 20th Century.

"During the last 40 years, I have seen many epidemics of artist-baiting. They tend to peak around election time. The names keep changing like flu viruses. As one who takes her flu shots every year, I am interested in immunity, not aspirin," she said.

Wayne warned her audience against compromising on issues that affect artists and cited two precedents. One occurred in 1969 hearings of the Senate Finance Committee, when visual artists organizations "traded away the right of artists to tax-deduct the market value of their gifts to museums in return for continuing deductibility for art collectors," she said.

"That precedent resulted in the eventual loss of all market-value deductibility of art gifts in the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Now that collectors compare their profit at auction to the cost of philanthropy, the national patrimony comes up short," Wayne said.

Another compromise took place in 1965 with the creation of the national endowments for the arts and humanities. The endowments could have followed the autonomous, permanent model of the National Science Foundation, she said, but artists settled for the temporary, renewable endowments that have been under attack and are now subject to increasing layers of review.

Wayne advocated restructuring the endowments into "The National Foundation of Arts and Humanities, with an independent board to interface with Congress and the White House as is the case for science," and securing "a Cabinet seat for the arts and humanities to make them integral to the interest of the nation." She also said that every art museum should have an effective artists' representative on its board of directors.

Challenging Helms' argument that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for art that might be deemed offensive, Wayne noted his support of far more costly tobacco subsidies, which "the majority of taxpayers oppose."

"What work of art can boast of killing even one human being, let alone 390,000 Americans dead of cigarette-related diseases in 1988?" she asked.

Wayne also found it ludicrous that a few "objectionable" artworks, such as the late Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs, could cause a storm of protest and even splinter the art community when far more serious problems are constantly in the news.

"Doesn't Washington know that the American people have seen Jimmy Swaggart, the Bakkers, the HUD hearings, the savings and loan scandals, the homeless, the crack babies, the crime on the streets? What photograph, sculpture or painting can shock anyone who has been conscious during these last 20 years?" she asked. The audience answered with thunderous applause.

Earlier in the program, an awards ceremony honored achievements of artists and art historians. The awards reflected the 1990 conference's focus on social issues. The formerly staid CAA now attempts to serve the needs of a broad constituency and to extend the study of art history beyond the traditional high culture of Western Europe.

Three black artists were among honorees at the Friday night program. Jacob Lawrence, a widely exhibited painter and a child of the Harlem Renaissance, won the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Howardina Pindell, a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an artist whose work often addresses Third World problems, was granted the Artist Award for a Distinguished Body of Work. The Distinguished Teaching Art Award went to printmaker Robert Blackburn, who has taught art for 40 years at Cooper Union, New York University, Columbia University and the Maryland Institute of Art.

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