The National Endowment for the Arts has rejected appeals by four controversial performance artists denied fellowships last month. The denial apparently sets the stage for a lawsuit challenging the grant rejections as illegal because political standards were applied to an artistic decision.
The decision in the case of the so-called "NEA Four" by NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer was disclosed Friday by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York City public-interest law group that represents the four artists.
Affected were appeals by performance artists Karen Finley and Holly Hughes of New York; Tim Miller of Santa Monica, and John Fleck of Los Angeles. The work of Hughes, Miller and Fleck is political and gay in its orientation. Finley's is stridently feminist, with strong political overtones. Most of the artists occasionally employ on-stage partial nudity as part of their work.
Denial of the appeals by Frohnmayer had been widely expected. Official word of the denials was conveyed in letters to the four artists from Randolph McAusland, acting NEA deputy chairman for programs, received by the artists on Friday. The NEA declined to comment, but lawyers for the artists released copies of the official endowment letters, dated Aug 17.
"This only underscores that we are being punished for the controversial content of our work," Finley said in a prepared statement issued by her attorneys. "The government wants art to be propaganda for the state, and we're not willing to do that."
The letters said Frohnmayer denied the appeals by all the artists except Miller under the chairman's overall authority to "support projects which meet the highest standards of professional and artistic quality."
Miller's appeal, the letter said, was denied on the technical grounds that one of his letters of recommendation--from Los Angeles Festival director Peter Sellars --was never received by the NEA. Miller has said in the past that he discussed the status of his application on several occasions with endowment officials before a deadline for the documents had lapsed and was informed his file was complete.
David Cole, a Center for Constitutional Rights lawyer handling the appeals on behalf of the artists, said all four of his clients would file suit in federal court in either Washington or New York to challenge the NEA decision.
Denial of the appeals was the latest development in a controversy that dates to last May when the NEA's advisory National Council on the Arts voted to delay an advisory vote on 18 performance fellowships until early August. The original vote to delay consideration was taken after a newspaper column published a biting description of Finley's work and conservative politicians made it clear they would make an issue of any NEA fellowship awarded to Finley.
While National Council on the Arts votes are not binding on Frohnmayer, he is precluded from acting on grant applications until the council has voted. Apparently attempting to blunt a growing political crisis over the performance fellowships, Frohnmayer said in late July that he telephoned national council members and secured their approval to reject the four artists in question before denying the grants.
The NEA has not said how many members Frohnmayer reached in his telephone survey. Several members of the 24-member council have said they were never called. One member told The Times several weeks ago that Frohnmayer never actually discussed the situation with her but conveyed his inquiry through an aide.
At a National Council on the Arts meeting in Washington earlier this month, Frohnmayer ruled out of order at least two attempts to reopen discussion of the fellowship rejections. Frohnmayer said that appeals were under way and further discussion would have been inappropriate.
Cole said he would base a court challenge on the contention that the grants and appeals were rejected on political grounds, not because of artistic merit.
All four artists were recommended for fellowships by a review panel of artists and arts officials earlier this year.
Frohnmayer, Cole contended, also "violated NEA procedures in the way that he came to these decisions by not convening the national council and, instead, calling them up individually." The NEA's 1965 enabling legislation indicates that a quorum must be physically present for the panel to act.
"The national council, as a body, has never actually made a determination on these applications," Cole contended. "Mr. Frohnmayer made a decision and then called the council members individually and urged them to support him."
Frohnmayer's decision to reject the fellowships in July came within days after he reportedly told a group of arts leaders in Seattle that "political" problems between the NEA and Congress would make it necessary to scuttle the Finley fellowship application.
However, accounts of what Frohnmayer said at the meeting have varied. Some people in attendance recalled that Frohnmayer mentioned Finley and the political need to reject grants in detail; others said they remembered no specific discussion of Finley.