The Washington Women's Arts Center has sent out postcards announcing an erotic art show and giving credit to both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pleasure Chest, a Georgetown store of erotica, for their support.
"Oh, brother," said NEA public relations person Kathy Christie when told.
The small print on the postcard announcing the Jan. 26 opening of the show reads: "This exhibition is sponsored in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Pleasure Chest."
The center, a cooperative which holds juried shows of many local women artists, received a $9,000 grant for the current fiscal year under NEA's Artists Spaces category. It also received a $100 donation from the Pleasure Chest, which sells lingerie, leather items, vibrators and "toys for adults," according to owner Cecilia Colglazier.
Center director Karen Montgomery vigorously defended the center's right to exhibit the erotic art. "The Rodin show is pretty sexy," she said. "It's pretty damn erotic. Go over to the National Museum of American Art and look at Hiram Powers' work. That's pretty erotic. Those institutions get NEA grants . . . Christ, look at Rubens."
Montgomery added, "I didn't know the Pleasure Chest had been asked for a donation . We usually ask merchants for help. We're broke. I'm not real happy about asking the Pleasure Chest ."
NEA official Michael Faubion said that at the time the grant was approved, the NEA didn't know the center planned this particular show. The NEA had asked applicants to supply biographies of the artists shown there, slides of their work, a brief history of the organization's activities, descriptions of what they had done, and a description of future exhibitions.
"They did that to a certain extent," said Faubion, who noted that the guidelines are even more specific now. "They're not outside the guidelines."
In fact, grantees are supposed to acknowledge help they get from the NEA. But, said Faubion, "It's slightly inaccurate to say we sponsored this exhibition." The grant, Faubion said, sponsored the center.
The NEA generally expects only tentative schedules of shows at smaller arts centers, according to Faubion. "The panel, being a panel of peers, realizes that for a specific plan to be submitted is difficult . . . There has to be a certain flexibility. They're just not a museum."
A Washington Women's Arts Center staffer said the show wasn't mentioned in the September 1980 application because the center didn't know what it would be doing during its 1981-82 season.
"They want proof you're going to use the money well," said Alice Sims of the center. "But they don't want information about all your coming shows in detail. We didn't decide about this show until the summer of 1981 ." Sims said, however, that since then she has sent an annual report of the center to the NEA this past fall.
"It's different from pornography," said Sims. "It's women expressing what is erotic."
Said Faubion: "We don't come down hard on our grantees when they do something controversial."
Would they have been funded if the NEA panel had known? "Hard to say," said Faubion.
Center director Montgomery has not seen the erotic art show yet, since it has not been installed. "I was assured it was not crotch-art," she said.
The 35 works of erotic art in the show, which was juried by New York artist Joan Semmel, are "soft, sensuous," said Women's Arts Center coordinator Dana Gordon. "Only a couple of things are blatantly sexual as in 'These are genitals.' . . . There is nothing pornographic about this show."
"We had a call from our insurance company," she said. "They were questioning whether they should insure us. 'If people don't like this,' they said, 'they'll show you by cutting up canvases.' We assured them there was nothing that dangerous in there."
Montgomery defended the center, calling it "apolitical" and a longtime supporter of women artists. "Ten years ago, women couldn't get shown at galleries," she said. "If you walked in, they'd say, 'Hey, can you type?' . . . We're a good organization . . . This will give a sense that we're wildly sexy. We are mostly women who are interested in being taken seriously."
The current show is one juried by writer Eleanor Munro, author of "Originals: American Women Artists." "A more sedate show you've never seen," said Montgomery.