Archive for Sunday, June 24, 1990


June 24, 1990


Kansas arts administrators are worried.

They're worried they may lose more than $900,000 in annual federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, funding that brings the arts to cities and small towns alike.

Whether they get the funding, and how they get it, depends on the mood of Congress, which may vote soon on reauthorizing the National Endowment for the Arts for another five years. Even if the agency is reauthorized, administrators may face added regulations that would bar funding "obscene" material.

"If you look at the NEA's overall record, out of more than 85,000 grants, only a few have raised objections," said Dorothy Ilgen, director of the Kansas Arts Commission.

"I think most of the state arts agencies in the United States started after the NEA. Communities are using the arts as part of a cultural identity. They feel very often that the arts are a way to draw new businesses to the community."

BEGUN IN 1965, the NEA now has a budget of about $171 million, of which $26 million goes to state arts agencies and another $15 million to fund challenge grants. Most endowment grants require the funded group to match the money it receives on a three-to-one basis.

For example, the Kansas University Concert Series recently won a $100,000 challenge grant, and the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art at KU and the Mid-America Arts Alliance in Kansas City are working on separate, $200,000 challenge grants.

The NEA also sent $55,000 in direct grants to Lawrence in fiscal year 1989, including $34,000 to the Spencer, $16,000 to the Concert Series and a $5,000 fellowship to KU professor and local artist Roger Shimomura.

To choose who receives the grants, the NEA uses a complicated peer-review process, in which professionals visit and evaluate arts groups applying for money. The process is supposed to make sure the NEA is funding well-run programs with artistic or educational merit.

THE UPROAR over the agency began last year, when conservative groups attacked the NEA for funding shows including the works of photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. Mapplethorpe's work includes male nudity and homosexual poses, and one Serrano photo showed a crucifix in a bottle of urine.

For Kansas arts groups, NEA money provides access to arts and culture, access that could be closed if Congress abolished the agency. Andrea Norris, executive director of the Spencer, sees a considerably stripped-down program for her museum, which receives money for shows, preservation and internships.

"The NEA contributes to just about everything we do," Norris said. "Without it, we wouldn't be able to bring in any shows. We'd probably just have shows from the collection without a (show) catalog."

THE TWO BIGGEST recipients of NEA money with direct ties to Kansas are the Kansas Arts Commission and the Mid-America Arts Alliance, a six-state arts funding and touring organization. The KAC received $667,350 from the NEA last year, or about one-third of its budget.

That money gets mixed with state funds and is sent, through the grants process, to more than 100 arts groups in the state, including the Lawrence Arts Center, the KU Concert Series and the Seem-to-be Players, a local theater group.

In addition, the Mid-America Arts Alliance received $744,557, or about 40 percent of its budget, from the NEA, said Janet Lowe, the group's communications director. That money is spread among the six states the alliance serves, including Kansas, and provides fellowships for artists.

IF THAT MONEY were to be delayed or dry up, the KAC could face serious problems in serving the state, Dorothy Ilgen said.

"The problem is what happens after Sept. 30," she said. "If the authorization bill doesn't go through, that's where we'd have problems."

The influx of funds from the NEA has brought the arts out to areas way beyond the state's population centers.

"There's been a pretty dramatic evolution in the arts, from the arts being something you had to drive a hundred miles to go to into something you can see in your community," Ilgen said.

FOR JACKIE Davis, the KU Concert Series director, the NEA made the difference between a good and a very good program. NEA seed money helped start the Swarthout Society, a citizen's support group for the arts. It also helped finance an education position in Davis' office, allowing the program to develop audience outreach programs and panel discussions with visiting performers.

"The very act of starting those programs would have been difficult without the NEA," Davis said. "In the '80s, we were in some ways an adolescent group. The NEA helped us see ourselves as a full-fledged program"

In other areas of Kansas, groups like the Wichita Symphony Orchestra use direct NEA money to run education programs. And the Finney County Historical Society in Garden City used a $7,200 grant for a traditional arts festival.

"Without that money, we wouldn't have had the festival at all," said Mary Warren, the society's director.

MOST OF THESE arts administrators support keeping the NEA the way it is now reauthorized for five years with no restrictions on content.

The Spencer's Norris says existing law is sufficient to bar groups from showing obscenity, at least according to the definition of the U.S. Supreme Court. The court said obscenity violates local standards and is devoid of artistic merit.

"We don't show work that's obscene," she said. "Obscenity is illegal. By its very definition, we can't show anything that's obscene. Robert Mapplethorpe is not obscene. His work has artistic value."

Davis said she's wary of creating panels to review art for obscenity. Those limits could cut the range of dance and drama programs she can bring to Lawrence.

"This movement has caused me to stop and evaluate the kinds of work we bring here," Davis said. "There's an old saying that this year's controversy is next year's great art. Sometimes the best art can be disturbing."

APPLICATIONS to the Kansas Arts Commission already go through an extensive, open screening process before Ilgen's staff can fund them. By that time, representatives of the public have ample opportunity to weigh in on obscenity.

"We inform all the Kansas legislators of awards that go into their district," she said. "We also have an open panel process, and we have a citizen's review committee that goes through each application pretty thoroughly."

But because obscenity is such a broad term, no one knows what could ultimately be labeled obscene, says Ric Averill, who runs the Seem-to-be Players children's theater group.

"In my opinion, it may sound silly to think that a children's theater company would do something obscene," he said. "But we're doing an adaptation of a Mark Twain story this fall. I've talked to people who have asked if it's that `Huck Finn' book. Some people think that's obscene because it has the word `nigger' in it. Where does it stop?"

ON THE OTHER hand, Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kansas, says the NEA does need to do a better job of policing itself. He said he favors reauthorization, because of the benefits to his district, but he also wants better oversight from the Republican Bush administration.

"Those grants that have caused all the controversy were granted during the Reagan years under Reagan's appointee," he said. "I hope that President Bush and his appointee do a better job of curtailing the grants that have caused so much revulsion on the part of the public."

In Garden City, Warren said her community wouldn't object to obscenity regulations beyond current standards.

"I think they should have some kind of limit on what they can fund," she said.

Arts administrators have begun to write their benefactors and members of Congress in support of the NEA. Davis and Ellen Morgan, executive director of the Association of Community Arts Agencies, are co-captains of the Kansas team to support the NEA.

"IN NO WAY to we see re-funding as a sure thing," Morgan said. "We're working with various groups in getting the information out to our congressional delegation."

Slattery said he is more hopeful.

"I think the NEA will be the next big battle," he said. "I think it will pass after a tough battle and lots of debate."

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