2 controversial performing artists get federal grants

January 05, 1991|By Eric Siegel

Controversial performance artists Karen Finley and Holly Hughes, who were denied federal funds last year under an anti-obscenity statute, were awarded grants totaling $35,000 yesterday from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ms. Finley, an ardent feminist who often performs nude, and Ms. Hughes, a lesbian whose work often explores her own sexual identity, received $20,000 and $15,000 grants, respectively, for collaborative works with other artists based in New York.

An NEA peer panel approved the grants last summer, but NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer held that decision up for review by a new panel.

Earlier, in June, Mr. Frohnmayer overturned the unanimous recommendation of a separate solo performance panel that Ms. Finley, Ms. Hughes and two gay male performance artists receive fellowships. Mr. Frohnmayer's decision -- made as Congress debated government funding of objectionable art -- was sharply criticized in the arts community.

The NEA chief could not be reached for comment yesterday, but he said in a statement that he was "satisfied that the grants meet the criteria set forth in the guidelines" for supporting works of artistic excellence.

Congress repealed the NEA's obscenity ban in October, substituting a vague requirement that the agency's grant-making decisions take into account "general standards of decency."

A description of proposed projects says the Hughes collaboration "will draw on ancient non-Western traditions to explore several contemporary issues" while the Finley work will use "the familiar talk show format to explore . . . mental illness."

Phillip Arnoult, artistic director of Baltimore's Theatre Project and head of the solo performance panel whose recommendation to fund the artists was overturned, expressed concern yesterday that the peer panel process had been replaced by "idiosyncratic" actions of the endowment's chairman.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a leading congressional critic of the federal arts agency, criticized the grants to Ms. Finley and Ms. Hughes.

"I don't think the government should be involved in the arts, and the NEA's decision to make these grants is another example that proves my point," he said in a statement.

The grants were among more than 1,200 announced yesterday to organizations and individuals throughout the country, with a value of about $47 million.

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