Negotiators reach agreement on NEA

October 05, 1990|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Correspondent Sun reporter J. Wynn Rousuck contributed to this article.

Washington---House negotiators yesterday announced an agreement to extend the life of the National Endowment for the Arts that they expect will attract a "significant majority" of House members of both parties.

The compromise legislation makes clear that constitutional prohibitions against obscenity apply to the NEA but leaves the determination of artworks' obscenity to the courts, not the endowment.

It also increases the percentage of NEA funds that will go directly to the states, rather than to individual artists or arts organizations, from the current 20 percent to 35 percent by 1993; tightens the grant application procedures; and revamps the peer panel process by which grant applications are reviewed.

The agreement for a three-year extension of the endowment was outlined here yesterday at a press conference held by Representatives Pat Williams, D-Mont., and E. Thomas Coleman, the ranking majority and minority members of the House subcommittee that considered the NEA's reauthorization.

They were joined by Representative Paul Henry, R-Mich., a leading critic of the NEA, who said the new proposal had his "unqualified support" and predicted other conservative lawmakers would join him in backing the package.

In announcing the agreement that had eluded House members for months, Mr. Williams, who had backed the reauthorization of the NEA with no changes, and Mr. Coleman, who had proposed that 60 percent of the NEA funds be funneled directly to the states, said the compromise would keep members of Congress from determining what constitutes art. At the same time, they said it would increase the accountability of the grant-making process to Congress and taxpayers.

Mr. Coleman said the agreement represented a "consensus" that reflected the reality that neither his nor Mr. Williams' position had sufficient support" to be enacted.

The NEA, whose statutory authority expired Sept. 30, has been embroiled in a 18-month-long debate over the federal funding of art some consider objectionable or obscene.

Mr. Williams said he expected the House floor vote on the endowment's reauthorization, which has been delayed several times over the last few weeks, to be held next Wednesday or Thursday.

He said the agreement "will make moot" the anti-obscenity pledge the NEA has required of grant recipients in an attempt to comply with language added to the endowment's 1990 appropriation prohibiting the agency from funding art works that "may be considered obscene."

The agreement adds new language directing the NEA to be "sensitive to the nature of public sponsorship" of art and empowers the agency to recover money from grant recipients whose funded work has been found to be obscene. Among other reforms, it calls for interim progress reports from grant applicants and the addition of lay persons to the panels making grant recommendations.

Local arts officials, while praising the overall agreement, found fault with parts of it.

Jim Backas, executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council, said he was not "overjoyed" that the state arts agencies would be getting more money to distribute at the expense of the endowment because it would represent a "diminishing" of the NEA. Although Mr. Backas said the MSAC, which currently receives about $450,000 from the NEA, would stand to get substantially more funds, he said overall the arts in the state would not necessarily benefit from the agreement because individual organizations could get substantially less money directly from the NEA.

Philip Arnoult, founder and artistic director of the Theatre Project and head of one of the NEA's peer panels, criticized the addition of nonprofessionals to the panels, saying, "Are we going to have lay representation on the Pentagon? I think it's a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the endowment to throw a sop to its critics."

The NEA said it would not comment on the proposal.

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