WASHINGTON. — For the past two years, the National Endowment for the Arts has suffered under criticism that it occasionally subsidizes pornography. It deserves to suffer, for the charge is true. But that is not the only thing about the NEA, or even the major thing, that merits concern. Let us talk about grantors and grantees.
The artists and organizations who seek grants from the NEA submit their applications to ''peer panels'' appointed by Chairman John Frohnmayer. The panels range in size from 6 to 20 members. They are chosen with an eye toward diversity in race, sex and residence. The panels meet formally once a year, but members often exchange views informally by telephone and correspondence.
It is exceedingly rare for a panel's recommendation to be overruled by Chairman Frohnmayer. For all practical purposes, an NEA award is a panel's award. It is instructive to observe the relationship between some of the panelists and some of the awards. I find the relationship chummy. A few specific examples may clarify the matter.
In 1988-1989, the most recent year for which data are available, Mr. Frohnmayer named eight panels in the field of dance. One such panel was known as Challenge II. It had six members.
The six were Bonnie Brooks, director of professional development for the Association of Dance Presenters in Washington; Laura Dean, of the Dean Dance & Music Foundation in New York; Myrna Saturn Gatty, deputy director of the Southern Arts Federation in Atlanta; Heinz Poll, artistic director of the Ohio Ballet; Gus Solomons Jr., artistic director of Solomons Company/Dance in New York; and Darlene Neel, manager of the Lewitzky Dance Company in Los Angeles.
During the year, Ms. Brooks won a $55,000 grant through a panel on inter-arts.
Ms. Dean won $100,000 from the panel on dance companies.
Ms. Gatty's Southern Arts Federation won eight grants from various panels totaling $820,680.
Mr. Poll won a $10,000 grant ''to support the development of new work by Artistic Director Heinz Poll for the Ohio Ballet.''
Mr. Solomons' company won a $19,000 grant ''to support domestic touring, general management representatives, and the creation of collaborative work by Artistic Director Gus Solomons.''
Darlene Neel, the sixth member of the Challenge II panel, apparently got nothing at all for her Lewitzky Dance Company.
Now mind you, because this is important, none of the grants that went to five members of the Challenge II panel was recommended by the Challenge II panel itself. The recommendations came from other panels with other members.
To press on: Elvi Moore of the Washington Ballet served on the Challenge III panel. His company won a grant of $34,000 -- but from a different panel.
Liz Thompson, executive director of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Lee, Massachusetts, also served on Challenge III. The Jacob's Pillow Festival won seven grants totaling $170,500, but from seven other panels.
Also on the Challenge III panel was Garth Fagan, artistic director of Garth Fagan's Bucket Dance Theater in Rochester, New York. From two other panels he won awards of $82,500.
You get the picture. Susan Marshall served on a panel charged with awarding $7,000 fellowships to 85 choreographers. She was one of only four choreographers to receive a special three-year grant of $45,000.
In the rarefied air of the dance world, every important figure knows every other important figure. The same thing is true of the world of the theater.
I suspect it is true of poetry and fiction, and probably a careful analysis of NEA grants would find inter- locking associations and correlations across the entire spread of 4,453 grants totaling $153 million.
To the NEA's credit, when I applied under the Freedom of Information Act for certain data, the data were promptly supplied.
It is a tedious business to match individual panel members with grants to their organizations, for the computer did not churn them out that way.
I looked at ''dance'' only because it was the first one in the NEA's annual report for 1989, and one has to start somewhere.
Have you ever looked at the tangled roots of a mangrove tree? Same thing. Artist A is on Panel B that awards a grant to Artist C who serves on Panel D. Artist E's panel awards a grant to Artist A.
So it goes, so it goes, so it goes.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.