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Despite Grants, 'NEA Four' Presses Suit

November 06, 1991|DENNIS McDOUGAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The National Endowment for the Arts' grant of $8,000 Solo Performance Theater Artist Fellowships to two of the so-called "NEA Four" on Tuesday has not slowed the quartet's yearlong legal battle over the agency's refusal to fund their 1990 projects.

Tim Miller, a UCLA instructor, was one of four performance artists who sued the federal agency 13 months ago because NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer refused their grant applications after questions were raised about the indecency of their stage performances.

"This very odd, unlegalistic word indecency should not be attached to any federal agency that (funds artists)," said Miller, a gay activist who incorporates gay themes into his stage performance. "That word has been used historically like a club against gay people, people of color or people with contrary points of view."

Miller and the lawyers representing him and the other three artists said Tuesday that the suit will continue. The next hearing is scheduled in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Dec. 16.

Frohnmayer had no comment on the pending suit, but government lawyers have asked a federal judge to dismiss the suit, citing a lack of injury to any of the four artists. Frohnmayer's action on Tuesday in favor of Miller and New York artist Holly Hughes, further supported the government's argument that the performance artists were not hurt by the refusal of their 1990 grant applications, according to NEA sources.

"That's bunk," said the American Civil Liberties Union attorney Nan Hunter, who said that the four artists will ask for summary judgment in their favor on Dec. 16.

"The NEA indecency standard is like the Sword of Damocles," said Hunter. "The problem is not that it falls, but that it always hangs over the head as a threat to these artists and many others like them. We're very pleased that the agency has granted these fellowships to Tim and Holly, but that doesn't indicate what will happen when the political winds blow a different direction next year."

Miller and Hughes joined performance artist John Fleck of Los Angeles and Karen Finley of New York in suing the agency a year ago in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The four artists are formally asking Judge A. Wallace Tashima to award them $50,000 each, plus legal expenses, on grounds that the NEA standard, enforcing indecency requirements on those who ask for or receive government funding, is vague and unconstitutional.

(Finley will be bringing her newest performance piece, "We Keep Our Victims Ready," to Los Angeles for the first time this weekend at UCLA's Wadsworth Theater.)

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