LEAD: A potentially controversial art exhibition is providing the National Endowment for the Arts with its first test of how to enforce last month's legislation to restrict Federal financing of artwork regarded as "homoerotic" or "obscene."
A potentially controversial art exhibition is providing the National Endowment for the Arts with its first test of how to enforce last month's legislation to restrict Federal financing of artwork regarded as "homoerotic" or "obscene."
Last May the endowment's art panel awarded a $10,000 grant for "Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing," a $30,000 exhibition of the work of 23 painters, photographers and sculptors, which includes some images of homosexual acts. The show is to open on Nov. 16 at Artists Space, a gallery on West Broadway, between Franklin and White Streets in TriBeCa, that specializes in showing the work of emerging artists.
"The point of the show is not sexuality, but AIDS and how it has affected a community," said Susan Wyatt, the executive director of Artists Space. "Obviously, sexuality is a topic that needs to be addressed when you're talking about AIDS. But loss, memorialization and spirituality are also part of the show."
It was Ms. Wyatt who alerted the endowment about its stake in the exhibition. The endowment's new chairman, John E. Frohnmayer, praised Ms. Wyatt as "very responsible" for alerting the endowment to the possibly inflammatory content of the show.
He said: "We are still actively discussing things with the gallery to try to reach a conclusion that will work for everybody concerned."
Disclaimer in Catalogue
Ms. Wyatt said that she included on 10,000 announcement cards, now being mailed, a statement that the endowment was a sponsor of the show. The endowment was also named as a source of funds for the show in a statement to the press distributed two weeks ago.
She added that she inserted in the show's catalogue a statement that endowment funds were not used to produce the catalogue. The statement says a grant from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation paid for the catalogue.
Asked if the disclaimer in the catalogue would sufficiently distance the endowment from the exhibition, Mr. Frohnmayer said: "I'm unable to discuss it on a piecemeal basis. We're trying to work out a comprehensive solution to the situation, and I don't want to work it out in the press. We need to keep some confidentiality until we see whether we can agree or know we can't agree."
"Ms. Wyatt is meeting with her board this afternoon and will respond to me afterwards," Mr. Frohnmayer continued. "At that point, we ought to have a pretty clear idea of what we're going to do."
He said he reviewed the grant application and an early draft of the catalogue, and a staff member of the endowment's museum program has reviewed slides of the exhibition. "We know at least part of what's involved," he said.
Ms. Wyatt declined to provide copies of the works in question or to describe them. She said the sex acts depicted in the show are "very hard to read, in photo collage and very, very grayed-out images."
"No image is anywhere nearly as strong as those Mapplethorpe photographs," she said.
Mr. Mapplethorpe was a New York photographer who died of AIDs, and an exhibition of his works that was scheduled and then canceled at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington last summer, fueled the controversy over Federal financing of art. Fearful that Congress would react adversely to financing work considered obscene by some, the gallery called off the exhibition. Although the exhibition was shown at an alternative gallery in Washington and later traveled to Hartford, the controversy set in motion the events that led to the restrictive legislation.
Comparison With Mapplethorpe
"What our show is really about," Ms. Wyatt said, "is a triptych which includes a self-portrait of Peter Hujar, a photographer who died of AIDS in 1987, and a portrait of him by David Wojarnowicz, who took a photograph of Peter shortly after he died. The show is about seeing someone who is alive and well and then seeing the devastation of this disease."
Ms. Wyatt said she decided to notify the endowment about the show several weeks ago "as a way of testing to see whether or not Helms has won."
She was referring to Senator Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, who led the fight to curb Federal financing of art considered obscene. She said her notification was "a reaction to a crisis or a chilling effect."
"I was concerned that the endowment not be blindsided in case there might be some controversy on this show," she said.