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Conflict of Interest Issue in NEA Grants? : Arts: Oversight panels include artists who have applied for funding. But this does not violate written endowment policy.


* The General Accounting Office--the investigative arm of Congress--sent letters to the Franklin Furnace Archive and the Kitchen Center for Music, Video & Dance in Manhattan formally requesting information on appearances since 1984 by four artists: Finley, Frank Moore of New York, and Johanna Went and Cheri Gaulke of Los Angeles. The GAO said the inquiry resulted from a demand by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Both organizations refused to respond to a GAO telephone query unless officials put it in writing. The GAO letters, dated July 17, set no deadline for providing data.

* The endowment notified Franklin Furnace that it must provide the NEA with "detailed information" on every visual arts exhibit it plans to produce with NEA support within 30 days or face rejection of a $20,000 grant. The request was in a letter dated July 13 from Julie Davis, the NEA general counsel. Earlier, the NEA notified the Kitchen that it would be required to provide advance notice to the arts endowment of productions it plans to present.

The Kitchen is listed as the producer of the Finley work for which the $25,000 in new funding has been recommended. In grant materials obtained Wednesday, Franklin Furnace is recommended for a $7,000 grant for an avant- garde stage production, and the Kitchen is recommended for an additional $15,000.

The NEA, citing a long-established policy of refusing to comment on pending grant applications, declined to respond to questions about the grant recommendations.

"If this grant is vetoed," said Finley in a telephone interview, "then that is proving that there is blacklisting and they are really out to make it as hard as possible for me to create new work."

In the new production, according to NEA documents, Finley and composer Jerry Hunt will "deconstruct" the conventional concept of the television talk-variety show. The concepts, the grant description concludes, "promise to be more extreme, on the edge and emotionally forthright than typical talk show entertainment in contemporary America."

The $15,000 Hughes grant is for "No Trace of the Blond," in which Hughes and the prominent writer-performer-director Ellen Sebastian will collaborate under the aegis of the Downtown Art Center in New York City. Hughes and Sebastian, the document continues, "see the image of vampires as an expression of irrepressible sexuality within a repressive social order and they plan to explore that image from a feminist revisionary perspective."

Barbara Tsumagari, director of the Kitchen, defended the NEA grant panel system, contending that "the policies set out by the endowment are scrupulously adhered to. Conflict of interest is somewhat inherent when you use professional peer panels, but I think it's been a very workable solution."

Finley's proposed collaborator, Hunt, was a member of the New Forms grant review panel that approved the applications in late May. Sebastian, who is listed as Hughes' collaborator, was also a member of the panel. In addition to the grants involving Hughes and Finley, the new batch of 52 recommended grants--with a combined total value of $700,000--chosen from among 436 applications includes:

* $10,000 and $18,850 to Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) gallery to support two productions, "Detour on Avenue Deja Vu" that is part of the L.A. Festival, and work by the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a group of homeless artists. LACE executive director Roberto Bedoya was a member of the grant-review panel.

* $17,000 to support a production in Cambridge, Mass., of work by a Belgian choreographer for which grant panel member Marie Cieri will be project director.

Bedoya, who has served on a number of NEA review panels, acknowledged that the situation can be "a touchy one," but he defended the panel system, saying, "There is always that muddled, gray area that exists in the peer panel process. But I believe in it 100%. I don't think you can eliminate those (occasional) muddled incidents.

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