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Artists Outraged at NEA Decision To Deny Performance Arts Grants

June 30, 1990

BOSTON (AP) _ The National Endowment for the Arts denied grants Friday to four performance artists who’d received initial approval, prompting charges that they are the latest victims of a move to clamp down on artistic freedom.

″People are up in arms because these are credible artists being singled out ... for a variety of political issues,″ Joy Silverman of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression said in a telephone interview from New York.

Of 18 applicants recommended by the endowment’s peer panel, 14 were awarded grants totaling $104,000; the remaining four artists were vetoed by the NEA’s 26-member council in Washington and Chairman John Frohnmayer.

″It’s unusual, though not unprecedented,″ NEA spokesman Josh Dare said in a telephone interview from Washington. ″The peer panel’s evaluations are not the be-all and end-all of the endowment review process. It’s a three-tier process.″

But the rejected artists and their supporters don’t see it that way.

″I’m outraged,″ said John Fleck, a Los Angeles-based performance artist whose pieces touch on such topics as AIDS, religion, the environment and homosexuality.

″I think there’s a strong movement going on to wipe out different voices, to have a homogeneous voice that suits certain people’s morals,″ Fleck said.

Fleck received an NEA grant last year, but this year his application was rejected, along with those of fellow artists Tim Miller, Holly Hughes and Karen Finley.

The NEA’s 1990 appropriations bill included anti-obscenity restrictions adopted amid protests over works such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photography and Andres Serrano’s crucifix submerged in urine, both of which received federal funds.

Now, arts advocates say, the repercussions are being felt.

″We feel basically that it’s like the wall is going down in Berlin while it’s coming up here in the United States,″ said Michael Overn, Finley’s husband and manager.

Frohnmayer - who was in Portland, Ore., on Friday - said the federal agency’s very survival was threatened by the controversy over a relative handful of art pieces.

″A remarkable experiment that has lasted the last 25 years and has so enriched our country is indeed threatened ... because of 20 images out of a million we have funded,″ he said in a speech to the City Club of Portland

But activists said Frohnmayer risked losing the arts community’s support by failing to stand up for the performance artists denied grants after the council overrode the peer panel’s recommendations.

″Political pressure and political realities are simply not reasons for not funding any individual artist or organization,″ said Susan Wyatt of the Artists Space, a New York artists’ group.

Frohnmayer touched off a controversy last fall when he rescinded a grant to the Artists Space before reversing his decision under pressure.

″Mr. Frohnmayer recognized he made a mistake in our case, and I hope he’ll recognize he made a mistake″ in the performance artists’ case, Wyatt said.

″A lot of people in the arts community are trying to support the endowment, but if peer recommendations aren’t going to be abided by, then the arts community is going to lose faith.″

In recent weeks such venerable arts groups as the New York and Oregon Shakespeare festivals, the University of Iowa Press and the Paris and Gettysburg reviews have returned NEA grants to protest the anti-obscenity guidelines.

″The real problem is ... that somehow our elected officials are allowing those few people on the far right to have this kind of power and effect on the arts,″ said Silverman of the Washington-based Campaign for Freedom of Expression.

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