NEA is still pondering what 'decency' means

November 11, 1990|By Eric Siegel

The National Endowment for the Arts is faced with determining the impact of new legislative language requiring grant recipients to adhere to "general standards of decency," as well as new funding formulas that direct more money to the states and reforms in its grant-making process designed to eliminate conflicts of interest.

The National Council of the Arts, the endowment's presidentially appointed advisory panel, has agreed to hold a two-day retreat sometime next month to sort out the effect of these changes, imposed by Congress to make the NEA more responsive to the public.

Last year, Congress prohibited the agency from funding workof art that "may be considered obscene, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children or individuals engaged in sex acts." But the three-year reauthorization of the endowment approved by Congress late last month eliminated those restrictions.

A meeting of the council last weekend in Washington -- the first since the reauthorization legislation was passed -- raised several concerns about the new requirements and left many questions unanswered.

Chairman John E. Frohnmayer said the endowment had "not yet determined" what the new "decency" language meant.

But he and other officials were more explicit about the consequences of legislative provisions mandating that the amount of the endowment's program funds that go to state arts councils be increased from 20 percent to 30 percent in 1991 and as much as 35 percent by 1993.

Those provisions -- which stipulate that 5 percent of the increase go to the various arts councils in the form of block grants and another 5 percent be awarded to them on a competitive basis for programs in rural and inner-city areas -- mean the endowment will have to take an additional $11.9 million out of the money it uses to fund programs of its own choosing, officials said. That figure is roughly equal to the amount of money the NEA awarded last year to orchestras and dance companies.

They also estimated it would cost $250,000 a year to comply with new regulations concerning conflicts of interest.

In the past, the NEA required only that a member of a grant advisory panel who was also affiliated with an organization applying for a grant leave the room when that group's application was being considered. Now, an individual is forbidden from serving on a panel if he or she is affiliated with a group applying for a grant.

To ensure knowledgeable panelists who have no conflicts of interest, endowment officials say they will have to create more than one panel in some major categories, such as museums. In all, they say, they will have to add another 25 panels to the 110 that already exist, at a cost of about $10,000 per panel.

The increased allocation of endowment funds to the states, in particular, left many council members perturbed.

Lloyd Richards, dean of the Yale School of Drama, described the endowment as "a severely wounded animal," while Roger Mandle, deputy director of the National Gallery of Art, expressed concern that "every time there's a bit of controversy [involving the NEA], more money will shift to the states."

But New York state Sen. Roy M. Goodman, noting that Congress defeated efforts to abolish the endowment or impose broader content restrictions on it, said that the council should be sending a message that "The arts are alive and well and we damn well mean to keep them that way."

John Brademas, co-chairman of an independent commission that investigated the NEA for Congress last summer, said in an interview that he was "not happy" with the "decency" language nor the increase in allocations for the states, which his panel recommended be done only after careful study.

But, Mr. Brademas added, "It is important to note that Congress has overwhelmingly voted to continue the NEA. It is an agency that obviously continues to enjoy support."

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