LEAD: The National Endowment for the Arts yesterday withdrew its sponsorship of a New York City art show about AIDS that includes images of homosexual acts and criticizes public figures. It was the first such decision by the agency since a law was passed this fall that will curtail Government financing of artwork considered obscene.
The National Endowment for the Arts yesterday withdrew its sponsorship of a New York City art show about AIDS that includes images of homosexual acts and criticizes public figures. It was the first such decision by the agency since a law was passed this fall that will curtail Government financing of artwork considered obscene.
John E. Frohnmayer, the endowment's new chairman, said he based his decision not on the works of art, some of which he said were in questionable taste, but on the show's catalogue, which criticized John Cardinal O'Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York; Representative William E. Dannemeyer, Republican of California, and Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, who led the fight this year against Government financing of art they considered obscene.
Mr. Frohnmayer made his remarks in a statement yesterday in which he said he was withholding a $10,000 grant approved by the endowment in May to help finance a show called "Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing" at Artists Space, a nonprofit gallery that features the work of new artists, on West Broadway, between Franklin and White Streets in TriBeCa. The show, which is to open on Nov. 16, cost $30,000 to mount.
In a letter to the executive director of Artists Space, Susan Wyatt, dated Nov. 3 and made public yesterday, Mr. Frohnmayer explained his actions. "Because of the recent criticism the endowment has come under, and the seriousness of Congress's directive, we must all work together to insure that projects funded by the endowment do not violate either the spirit or the letter of the law," he said. "The message has been clearly and strongly conveyed to us that Congress means business. On this basis, I believe the endowment's funds may not be used to exhibit or publish this material."
Ms. Wyatt said yesterday: "I'm very saddened by this. Mr. Frohnmayer treated me with great respect, but he's going to have a severe problem now because he's sending out a message to each and every art institution around the country that they can't do anything that's essentially controversial."
"This is setting a very dangerous precedent," she continued. "We did a show of eastern European art here last June, and I know what official art is all about, and I just hope we're not moving into that."
Mr. Frohnmayer responded: "Clearly, that is not my position. I believe that political discourse ought to be in the political arena and not in a show sponsored by the endowment."
The exhibition presents work by 23 painters, photographers and sculptors that includes some images of homosexual acts. The curator of the show was Nan Goldin, a Boston artist and photographer.
The measure approved by Congress states that funds appropriated by Congress for the endowment may not be used to "promote, disseminate or produce materials considered obscene, including sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children or individuals engaged in sex acts." The language also includes the words "and which, when taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." This was adopted by Congress in preference to a much broader restriction proposed by Senator Helms.
'Sexuality Is a Topic'
"The point of the show is not sexuality, but AIDS and how it has affected a community," Ms. Wyatt said. "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."
Mr. Frohnmayer said when the endowment's peer panel considered the Artists Space application for the exhibition in February, no material had been selected for it. Since then, he said yesterday, the endowment found in reviewing the material to be exhibited "that a large portion of the content is political rather than artistic in nature."
Mr. Frohnmayer said he asked Artists Space in his Nov. 3 letter to remove the endowment's name as a sponsor of the show and also to relinquish the endowment's $10,000 grant.
Asked if he objected to any of the sexual images in the show, Mr. Frohnmayer replied: "Some of them were of questionable taste, but my overall objection was that between the time the panel approved the grant and the way the show developed, it turned into a political statement."
"There are specific derogatory references in the show to Senator Helms, Congressman Dannemeyer and Cardinal O'Connor which make it political."
Ms. Wyatt said the references are made in the catalogue rather than with photographs in the show. "They are strong statements written by the photographer David Wojnarowicz, who has AIDS and who expresses his anger toward statements by these three individuals against safe sex," she said. She declined to give quotations from the catalogue.
The Catalogue's Financing
The catalogue, which cost $7,000, was partly underwritten by a $5,000 grant from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Mapplethorpe was a New York City 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 this summer fueled the problems over Federal financing of art.
"I disagree with that characterization of the show," Ms. Wyatt said of Mr. Frohnmayer's comments. "I wholeheartedly believe in this show. It has not changed from art to politics. It is art."
There was uncertainty yesterday over the disposition of the endowment's $10,000 grant. Although Mr. Frohnmayer's Nov. 3 letter asked Artists Space to "relinquish the endowment's grant," the money had not actually been delivered.
Ms. Wyatt said she assumed that since she had received a letter from the endowment in July stating that the grant had been made, the money was on the way. After receiving Mr. Frohnmayer's request to return the money, she said she asked all 23 board members on Tuesday whether they wished to return the money. They unanimously agreed to keep the it, she said.
When Ms. Wyatt conveyed that news to Mr. Frohnmayer yesterday, he said he promptly suspended the $10,000 grant and turned the matter over to the Department of Justice to consider any legal problems created by his suspension of payment.
Mr. Frohnmayer's repudiation of the show is a first result of restrictions approved last month by Congress after the problems over the endowment's sponsorship of exhibitions of artworks by Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano that were said by some to be sacrilegious or obscene.
Ms. Wyatt said although Artists Space has an annual budget of more than $700,000 gathered from many sources, the gallery's relationship with the endowment has been vital. "A $10,000 grant from the N.E.A. means a lot to us," she said. "It's a stamp of approval, a way to start a project."