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New York Gallery Refuses to Relinquish Arts Endowment Grant

November 9, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A New York City gallery Wednesday rejected a request from the National Endowment for the Arts that it relinquish a $10,000 federal grant for an AIDS art exhibition as a possible violation of a new anti-obscenity statute.

Endowment Chairman John E. Frohnmayer, informed of the gallery’s refusal, said that although the grant was approved last May, the funds were never actually sent to the gallery and would be withheld pending a legal opinion from the Justice Department.

In a telephone interview, Frohnmayer said a review of the catalog for the AIDS exhibition made clear that ″the nature of the show had changed from an artistic focus to a political focus.″

The $30,000 show is sponsored by Artists Space, a private, non-profit arts institution in Manhattan, where it is scheduled to open Nov. 16. Frohnmayer said the gallery refused to accept his contention that ″the show was primarily a political statement and that it would not be appropriate to take endowment money for its support.″

Susan Wyatt, executive director of Artists Space, said Frohnmayer was informed Wednesday of the unanimous decision by the gallery’s 23 board members to refuse the NEA’s request to relinquish the grant. She denied that the focus of the exhibition had changed from art to politics.

Frohnmayer also had asked the gallery, in a letter dated Nov. 3, to publish a disclaimer stating that ″the National Endowment for the Arts has not supported this exhibition or its catalog.″

The controversy over the AIDS show, titled ″Witness: Against Our Vanishing,″ illustrated the dilemma that Frohnmayer faces in trying to support the arts community while enforcing a congressional ban on federal support for works that ″may be considered obscene.″

Ms. Wyatt said the AIDS show, which portrays the effects of the disease on the artistic community, contains some images of male and female nudity and ″deals with sexuality in the context of AIDS,″ although that is not the primary emphasis.

The law which Congress passed last month at the urging of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., specifically prohibits federal support for ″depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children or individuals engaged in sex acts,″ and materials that lack serious artistic value.

The legislation was prompted by Helms’ criticism of $45,000 in endowment grants that supported exhibitions of controversial photographs by the Andres Serrano and the late Robert Mapplethorpe, whose show included homoerotic images.

In his Nov. 3 letter to Ms. Wyatt, Frohnmayer said that ″given our recent review, and the current political climate, I believe that the use of endowment funds to exhibit or publish this work is in violation of the spirit of the congressional directive.″

He said that ″certain texts, photographs and other representations in the exhibition may offend the language″ of the new law.

″Because of the recent criticism the endowment has come under and the seriousness of Congress’ directive, we must all work together to ensure that projects funded by the endowment do not violate either the spirit or the letter of the law,″ he wrote.

″The message has been clearly and strongly conveyed to us that Congress means business.″

In his interview, Frohnmayer said he particularly objected to portions of the AIDS show’s catalog which he said contained ″very hostile, angry and accusatory″ statements and ″very politically pointed commentary″ about Helms and other critics of controversial art and the AIDS cause.

Ms. Wyatt said the gallery board, in refusing to relinquish the endowment grant, was ″taking a stand against censorship and self-censorship.″

″We believe this is a show that should be funded by the endowment,″ she said in a telephone interview from New York. ″It is a very regrettable thing that the endowment has been forced to take this stand by Congress in this political climate we are seeing today.″

She rejected as ″totally erroneous″ Frohnmayer’s contention that the exhibition is primarily political.

″This is not a show about politics,″ she said. ″It’s a show about AIDS.″

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