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An Insider's Look at How NEA Awards Its Grants

August 17, 1994|ANDY GRUNDBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This month, recommendations for three artists' grants were denied by the National Endowment for the Arts, causing a new wave of controversy for the embattled arts agency. Calendar asked Andy Grundberg, chair of the photography panel that recommended the grants, to provide an insider's view of the proceedings and current state of affairs at the endowment. Grundberg is a former photography critic for the New York Times and is currently director of Friends of Photography in San Francisco. *

As one who has admired the National Endowment for the Arts for its commitment to artistic excellence and cultural equity, I find it hard to believe that the agency's putative conscience, the National Council on the Arts, decided on Aug. 5--after an informal lunchtime slide show--to deny fellowships to three deserving photographers. As a member of the "advisory peer panel" that had recommended that the three artists receive the fellowships, I find it even harder to believe that the council acted purely on aesthetic grounds.

The three artists--Merry Alpern, Barbara DeGenevieve and Andres Serrano--were selected from among 1,700 applicants for the photography fellowships that the endowment awards every other year. They are photographers whose work I have followed, respected and often (though not always, as is my critic's prerogative) admired during the course of my 20 years in the field.

The six other panelists who were convened by the endowment last spring included five nationally known artists and one "layman" from outside the field. All of us agreed that Alpern, DeGenevieve and Serrano deserved to be among the 30-odd candidates we ultimately recommended to receive endowment funds. But the National Council, which includes no one with a background in the art of photography, saw fit to overrule our recommendation. Never before had the council rejected a fellowship peer panel's judgments.

At least superficially, the council's action was within the rules under which the endowment operates. All grants applications go through the same exacting process: They are reviewed by an advisory panel of experts, which recommends them to the National Council. The council then recommends them to the chair of the endowment. Only when the chair approves does a grant become official. But, if the council disapproves, as it did in this case, a grant cannot be awarded. (This little-known wrinkle was put into effect by Congress in 1990.)

However, the National Endowment for the Arts has long honored a higher mandate: that decisions be made not on the basis of favoritism, political expediency or influence, but solely on the basis of artistic quality. As a panel, we observed this mandate scrupulously. Unfortunately, the National Council did not.

As the transcript of the council's public session reveals, the discussion about the photography fellowship began with citations of Congress' eagerness to see that the council not be a "rubber stamp" of peer panel decisions. One member alluded to the fact that Congress is about to decide how much to cut the endowment's budget for the coming fiscal year. Other council members then expressed doubts about whether the pictures they had seen in slide form represented the best the field of photography had to offer.

Artistic quality? Let's not kid ourselves. The name "Serrano" on the list of fellowship recommendations set off alarms among the council's 26 members well before they arrived in Washington for their meeting. They knew, as we on the panel knew, that Serrano's work had touched off a political crisis for the endowment five years ago--a crisis that has seemed to abate only recently. But as panelists we abided by the instructions given us: We were to decide only on artistic merit. And the work Serrano submitted with his application was among the strongest we had the privilege of seeing.

The same was true of the work of Alpern and DeGenevieve. Like Serrano, who had photographed dead bodies in powerful fashion, Alpern and DeGenevieve focused on powerful, sometimes disturbing, subject matter. Their sin, however, was to include images that revealed the human body, and human foibles, in unflinching fashion. Alpern's documentary images of sex and drugs being traded in an urban office building and DeGenevieve's crafted image/text works about gender and sexuality apparently pushed more than half the council members over the edge. Either that, or they felt that singling out Serrano would look too calculated.

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