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NEA Chief Defends Her Grant Vetoes : Endowment: Acting chairman Anne-Imelda Radice discusses the controversy that has surrounded her short tenure.

May 29, 1992|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — "I'm the head of a federal agency that has a responsibilty to the taxpayer. And the taxpayer has been pretty vocal about what he or she feels about everything, including the arts."

With those words, Anne-Imelda Radice, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, characterized her approach to the job she inherited a month ago.

In an interview following her appearance Wednesday on a panel at the second annual Governor's Conference on the Arts here, Radice spoke at length about the controversy that has surrounded her short tenure--controversy arising from her vetoing of two grants that had been recommended by an NEA peer panel and the advisory National Council on the Arts.

Echoing remarks she made before a recent congressional committee, Radice said she believes that while the feelings of panels and council should be considered, the chairman must take the ultimate responsibility for making decisions. She stressed that she is a White House appointee chosen to serve a federal agency in what she believes to be the best interest of Congress and the American people.

Speaking critically of her predecessor, John E. Frohnmayer--ousted from his post in February during attacks on the NEA by then-presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan--Radice said Frohnmayer was sincere in saying what he felt, but gave too much authority to advisory panels and "was unwilling to accept . . . the legal role of the chairman."

"The panel is advisory, the council is advisory. The chairman makes the decision," she said. "For the past three years or so, there has been the perception that . . . any non-acceptance of advice by either council or panels is some kind of heretical action. That's absolutely ridiculous."

Radice's appearance at the conference was on a session addressing the arts and economic development. Her brief comments before an audience of approximately 200 artists and administrators included no references to recent NEA turmoil. In a question-and-answer session as part of the panel, one audience member asked her about the overturned grants, but she declined to address the issue, saying it wasn't what she was there to discuss.

While Radice was in Sacramento, a House Appropriations Committee meeting in Washington heard testimony from the arts community, which included complaints against Radice from members of two peer panels who recently refused to carry out their duties in protest of Radice's decision to deny grants for exhibitions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's List Gallery and Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery.

In the interview, Radice--who was unavailable for comment during the walkouts by panels reviewing applications for fellowships to sculptors and solo theater artists--adamantly defended both her decision and her right to overturn the grants.

"I explained this to (the solo theater artists panel) last week," said the 44-year-old Radice. "I said, 'That's the way Congress set it up.' If you don't agree with it, I hate to say write your congressman, but that's where it is. I am a person with feelings, a person who clearly has been given a responsibility that's pretty heavy-duty. I don't represent a private foundation investing my own personal money. I'm no longer the director of a private museum," added Radice, who at one point served as director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington.

Radice said the NEA has not bowed to pressure groups that have protested certain controversial NEA funding decisions in the past and does not like to characterize them as the "religious right."

"I think it's disrespectful to pick out any group and stick a label on them that's derogatory," she said. "These are American citizens who are expressing their rights."

Radice believes she gave due consideration to the peer panel recommendation for grants to the List and Anderson galleries for proposed exhibitions which would include depictions of body parts and sexual organs. "The (peer panel) that recommended the two grants that I did not accept made over 400 recommendations--I didn't agree with two of them, that's all," she said. "We're investing relatively limited resources, and we have to make the best investment.

"In 99.999% of cases, I'm not going to disagree (with the panels). And the few instances where I might disagree I don't think is cause for the end of the world, or some of the reaction that I've gotten. I don't think people have to agree, but to call me a censor or say that I don't care or that I don't respect the panel, it's abhorrent to me. That's not the kind of person that I am."

While some members of the solo performance theater panel have said Radice refused to discuss their concerns, Radice says she met with panel members in her office and "begged them to stay" and finish their review so the artists involved would not lose their grants. "We were willing to stay all night if they were willing to," she said.

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