John E. Frohnmayer, the deposed chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, yesterday urged a gathering of museum officials here to reject advice that they present only "safe art" in an attempt to mollify critics of governmental funding of controversial art.
"A retreat to that kind of fortress mentality is an abdication of the leadership that is thrust upon us," he said in the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums at the Convention Center. "It admits governmental impotence and it deprives the next generation of its opportunity to discover a world of new ideas, new opportunities and new challenges."
In his first speech since leaving the federal arts agency, Mr. Frohnmayer, whose last day at the NEA was last Friday, also derided suggestions that Congress needs the "cover" of special language prohibiting the support of indecent art in order to continue providing governmental funding.
"The problem is that decency is in the mind of the receiver and the First Amendment protects the speaker," he said.
"To me, the most damning sound bite is not 'My opponent voted for obscenity' but rather, 'My opponent jettisoned the First Amendment," added Mr. Frohnmayer, whose 2 1/2 year tenure at the helm of the NEA was marked by persistent attacks on the endowment by conservative critics and fundamentalist religious groups.
Although his delivery was low-key, and his speech was filled with scholarly references and legal observations, the former NEA head yesterday displayed much of the same bluntness that characterized the handful of speeches and interviews he has given since being fired Feb. 20. His dismissal followed renewed attacks on the endowment by Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan.
Mr. Frohnmayer portrayed critics of the NEA as part of a "very strong strain of anti-intellectualism in America" and said they were "creating an indignation" over a handful of works of art they found to be offensive to foster a more "homogeneous society.
"This isn't an issue about art. It's an issue that's about the control of ideas. It's a culture war," he said.
"No one, no institution is exempt from this kind of attack," he added.
Though he did not mention any names, Mr. Frohnmayer pointedly criticized the presidential contenders.
"As I look at the presidential campaign to date, I become increasingly persuaded that leadership that will revitalize our country must come from the bottom up," he said.
Mr. Frohnmayer said following his speech that he would pursue a career of speaking and writing and that he did not expect to back anyone in the presidential race. "It's my intention to be involved with ideas as opposed to candidates," he said.
The museum meeting, which is expected to attract some 4,000 officials from all over the country, runs through Wednesday.