Is NEA funding going to artists who don't really need it?


November 11, 1990|By Eric Siegel

For Ann Fessler, the $5,000 National Endowment for the Art fellowship she was awarded last year couldn't have come at a better time.

The Baltimore artist -- who was set to go on a semester's sabbatical from her job teaching photography at the Maryland Institute, College of Art -- had an idea for an installation based on the fact that she was adopted as a child. Within four months, she had spent the bulk of her NEA grant money on materials for what she knew would be a non-commercial project.

Earlier this year, the piece, "Genetics Lesson," was exhibited at New York's Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art and at a faculty show at the Maryland Institute, where a reviewer cited the "almost poetic way" she combined text, prints and furniture to examine the "powerful experience" of her adoption.

"The work would not have gotten done if I hadn't gotten the grant," Ms. Fessler says.

Leonard Koscianski's $5,000 NEA fellowship was equally propitious -- but for a vastly different reason.

Mr. Koscianski -- an Annapolis painter whose large, representational oils are sold through a prestigious New York art gallery at prices ranging from $5,000 to $35,000 -- says his 1989 NEA grant, his second in five years, was like selling another painting at a time when the "art market was getting really soft."

Mr. Koscianski, who has a wife and three small children, describes his most recent NEA grant as "helpful" but says he did not use it to do anything differently with his art and admits, "I could have survived without it."


Do NEA grants go to artists who don't really need them?

That question, raised in some arts circles, has been largely overshadowed by the bruising 18-month long controversy over government funding of art some consider obscene or objectionable. The latter issue was quelled, at least temporarily, when Congress voted last month to reauthorize the NEA for three years with no explicit restrictions on the content of the art the endowment can fund.

But the price of stilling that storm has been a series of congressionally mandated administrative reforms and new funding formulas, the impact of which is still being sorted out. (See accompanying story).

One area certain to receive renewed scrutiny is the NEA's funding of grants to individual artists. Some arts administrators have speculated that the endowment will abolish such awards, speculation the agency says is unfounded. Others have wondered whether a required increase in the percentage of NEA funds going directly to state arts agencies will mean less money for artists, rather than the more politically influential arts organizations.

The question of whether too many grants go to artists who don't need them was raised during the NEA reauthorization debate by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., whose name has become anathema to most artists for his attacks on the agency. Citing a recent Spy magazine story -- which accused the endowment of "tossing . . . money at those who need it least" -- he noted its reference to a successful New York artist who used his NEA grant to help pay his income taxes. But Senator Helms' proposed amendment prohibiting artists who earn more than $95,000 a year from getting NEA grants was defeated by voice vote.

A Helms aide said the figure in the amendment was 15 times that of the official poverty line. Countering the argument that the prestige of the award can be as useful to artists as the money, the aide said, "If it's the honor that's important, can that not be done in some way other than giving them the taxpayers' money?"

In the meantime, others who have been diametrically opposed to Senator Helms on the issue of content restrictions sound a similar theme. NEA supporter Charles P. Bergman, executive vice president of the New York-based Pollock-Krasner Foundation, a private philanthropic group set up to aid worthy visual artists with documented needs, says, "While I applaud merit, I also feel you don't just give grants for artistic merit. . . . I wish the NEA could be more concerned with need."

But the statutory language of the NEA says only that the endowment may give grants to "groups or, in appropriate cases, individuals of exceptional talent," not need. Last year, the NEA gave 7 percent of its available $124 million in program funds, or about $8.7 million, to more than 800 individual artists in a variety of disciplines; the remainder of the money went to the states or to arts organizations.

(The balance of the agency's $171 million appropriation included $19.8 million for administrative expenses and $27 million in challenge grants to arts institutions for major projects.)

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