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NEA Faces New Crisis Over Funding, Grants : The arts: The agency's decision to deny funds to three photographers comes as significant new cuts in its budget are being sorted out in Congress.

August 11, 1994|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Congress hasn't even inked a new budget for the embattled National Endowment for the Arts, but already the war over federal arts funding is leaving casualties.

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Ironically, the latest controversy may have been sparked by an attempt to avoid new problems for the agency while significant new cuts to the NEA budget are being sorted out in Congress. The latest incident happened Friday when the agency's National Council on the Arts overturned grants recommended by the NEA photography panels for three photographers, even though the council has historically approved the peer panel recommendations that come first.

Significantly, the rejected photographers included Andres Serrano, whose 1986 photograph of a crucifix in urine, "Piss Christ," touched off an earlier round of censorship battles. Also overturned were fellowships to Merry Alpern of New York and Barbara DeGenevieve of Chicago, both of whose work involve sexual themes.

The council can't turn down grants for political reasons, according to the legislation that established the NEA, but the funding fracas before Congress was directly referred to in the panel's deliberations. In a public discussion before the vote, National Council member Barbara Grossman, a Tufts University theater professor, said: "We hear about the cuts across the board, programs having to slash. And I think that we cannot be blind to the political reality, either. And I would never, ever, ever limit an artist's ability to create. . . . But I think that given the volatile times in which we live, we cannot be myopic about the reality of funding either."

"People are trying to save (the NEA) by chopping off its extremities," Andy Grundberg, chairman of the photography fellowship advisory peer panel that recommended Serrano, said in an interview early this week. Grundberg, former New York Times photography critic, is now director of the Ansel Adams Center for Photography in San Francisco.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Grossman denied the charge. "The budget battles are there . . . but I cannot say that that fact made me decide in a particular way. I judge the artwork as the artwork, and it was not a decision made on political grounds whatsoever."

The NEA's photography advisory panel is sending a letter of protest to NEA Chairman Jane Alexander, although she does not have the authority to overturn the council's decision. The protest comes as artists and arts organizations circle their wagons in the wake of the Senate's threat to slice 5% off the $171-million NEA budget. (The three programs that fund performance art and photography, the bane of the agency's conservative critics, are targeted for 40% cuts--visual arts, theater, and presenting and commissioning.)

The House had passed a 2% cut, and a compromise is expected to emerge soon from a House-Senate conference committee. The battle comes as private foundations are also cutting back funding in the wake of the '80s boom.

In Los Angeles, Odyssey Theatre production manager Jason Loewith launched a fax campaign to urge the theater community to write to their congressional representatives.

"If you believe in the arts in this country, you MUST let your voice be heard NOW . . . ," Loewith said in the fax.

Other arts advocates are wearying of an ideological fray that only seems to deepen.

"My comment to the people at the NEA was that they should not be expecting this constituency to rise again in support of the NEA after what's just happened," said David Mendoza, executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression. "The questions from faxes and E-mail from that constituency is that's exactly what I'm hearing: Why bother?"

The current congressional budget furor was ignited by reports of a March 5 performance by artist Ron Athey at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis that was supported by $150 in NEA money, a portion of a larger grant. In a work with roots in Antonin Artaud's "theater of cruelty," Athey carved a ritual pattern into the back of artist Darryl Carlton, blotted it with paper towels and hung them from a clothesline over the audience. Even though Athey says Carlton is not HIV-positive, an audience member complained about supposed health risks, and conservative religious groups seized on the ensuing press melee to complain to Congress.

"I'm disappointed that it's happening now under Jane Alexander's tenure," said Adolfo V. Nodal, general manager of L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Department. "You would hope that at this point under the Clinton Administration, with Jane as a leader, that the leadership could be found to make sure we don't continue to demonize artists. Obviously, it's the same old game."

Arts organizations say the results could be devastating for the arts in L.A., which receives nearly $660,000 under the NEA's targeted programs, according to an NEA spokesman. "Anything short of annual inflation increases is disastrous," said performance artist and Highways co-founder Tim Miller.

Part of the problem is that NEA grants, which tend to be small fractions of arts organizations' budgets, nonetheless have a ripple effect.

"NEA funds are critical in terms of leveraging other dollars" from private sources, said Helen Bruner, executive director of the National Assn. of Artists' Organizations. "It gives credibility and clout."

If the Senate's cuts go through, the Santa Monica Museum of Art would have to reduce artists fees; mount fewer shows and run them longer; include fewer artists in group shows; and scrap catalogues and brochures, according to executive director Thomas Rhoads. The museum earns $15,000 of its $450,000 budget in NEA visual arts funds.

Beyond Baroque would have to consider raising ticket prices for readings if its $5,000 grant under the NEA's targeted presenting and commissioning program is slashed, director Tosh Berman said. The Venice literary-arts center has a budget of nearly $200,000.

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