Washington National Endowment for the Arts Chairman John E. Frohnmayer said yesterday that last week's report by an independent study commission and a favorable Senate committee vote "suggest that cooler heads may prevail" in the bitter debate over the reauthorization of the embattled federal arts agency.
L The commission report, which opposed content restrictions on
NEA-funded art, but recommended major changes in the agency's grant-making procedures, contained "much wisdom" for "the majority of Congress who want to solve this problem" of government funding of controversial art.
But Mr. Frohnmayer, speaking to reporters at the National Press Club, said he would not rescind his requirement that grant recipients sign an anti-obscenity pledge despite the bipartisan commission's recommendations that he leave judgments about artworks' obscenity to the courts.
"The reason that language was put in was to let the artist know what the law is and let Congress know that we know what the law is," he said, adding that the pledge stipulation would remain in effect until the courts rule on its constitutionality and Congress decides whether to impose new restrictions on the agency.
He did say, however, that the NEA had already instituted many of the reforms recommended by the independent commission, including the addition of lay people to the grant advisory panels. He dismissed the notion that such changes would result in the funding of more mainstream and less adventurous art.
"I think we can support art absolutely on the cutting edge and still be responsible" to public sensitivities, he said.
Mr. Frohnmayer praised the 15-1 vote by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in favor of a compromise bill that would reauthorize the NEA for five years with no content restrictions. It would, however, empower the agency to institute sanctions against artists whose funded work is found to violate existing obscenity laws.
He said the "virtue of the Senate bill is that it does deal with the obscenity issue" while leaving the determination of what is obscene to the courts, not the NEA.
He called the bill, which now goes to the Senate floor, a "wise solution to a very thorny problem."
The NEA, whose statutory authority expires at the end of the month, has been embroiled in an 18-month controversy over its funding of art that some find objectionable or obscene.
Mr. Frohnmayer said the endowment was committed to "artistic excellence" and increased public access. To encourage the latter, he said the agency had recently awarded a $50,000 grant to the Rouse Co. to bring high-quality arts to shopping areas.